Ahead of last year’s pivotal UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, West Yorkshire-based arts collective Sand In Your Eye created a giant sand artwork and a series of ice sculptures to highlight global warming on a beach in Merseyside.
“We had 26 ice sculptures of a child on the beach and we had an actual child who stood next to the ice sculptures and held up a sign of one of the global leaders attending COP26, ” says Sand In Your Eye’s artistic director Jamie Wardley.
The team of artists and sculptors drew the words ‘COP26 Net Zero Future 2050 – making a plan for our future’ into the sand and got children to add their own thoughts and messages. “It was just to bring attention to it and to send a message to leaders to do something about it,” says Jamie.
However, he couldn’t have anticipated what happened next. “You never know where these things are going to go, but Bill Gates actually tweeted that picture as the lead picture with his blog for that day, along with the words ‘I’m hopeful that things are going to get done.’”
Given that the American business magnate and philanthropist has more than 56 million followers on twitter alone, that’s some audience.
It was also more kudos for Sand In Your Eye which is based in Cragg Vale, deep in the verdant Calder Valley. The collective is made up of freelance artists, sculptors and workshop experts who create sand sculptures and sand drawings, ice sculptures, land art as well as pumpkin carvings.
The arts business is run by Jamie and his wife, Claire, though initially it wasn’t an obvious career path for him. He studied environmental protection at university and it was during a holiday in Norway that he had a eureka moment.
“While I was out there I met a sand sculptor. In one morning I saw him turn two blocks of sand into the Queen and Mr Bean. He was creating an English tea party for a tea company and I was just amazed. I got talking to him, he gave me a few tips and to cut a long story short I ended up going back to Norway to work with him.”
After a number of years working freelance and acquiring skills as an ice sculptor, Jamie launched his own company, Sand In Your Eye. The business has won contracts from all over the world and worked with everyone from Aardman Animations, the company behind Wallace and Gromit, to the RSPB.
It also collaborated with filmmaker Danny Boyle who co-ordinated an ambitious Armistice project - titled Pages of the Sea – in 2018 marking the centenary of the end of the First World War.
For this Wardley and a team of artists created 28 giant portraits of servicemen and women. These poignant portraits, selected by the Imperial War Museum, measured 30 metres and were drawn into the sand at low tide locations dotted around the UK before being washed away.
In March 2020, they did a field painting for International Women’s Day. “We went into a local school and asked the kids to vote on who they would like us to paint and they voted for Greta Thunberg so we did her.”
The pandemic has brought challenges, as it has for many arts organisations, with the first lockdown proving especially tough. “All of our customers kind of went into hibernation and we did as well, though we did a couple of pieces of land art locally as a thank you to the NHS,” says Jamie.
Last year things picked up again. “We did a lot of charity work and commissions and that worked because much of what we do involves a beach, five people and a drone, so it was quite easy to do that.
“Workshops were a bit of a no-no, but we did pumpkin trails and ice sculpting really came back last year. We’re lucky, we’re quite dynamic and there’s a lot of different things that we make.”
Sand In Your Eye’s main focus is commissions, but Jamie and his small team also set aside time for their own projects, like the COP26 sculptures and drawings. “The environmental side of things has really re-emerged and when COP26 came to the UK we felt this was a really big deal and we should try and make a statement, so that’s why we did the ice sculptures on the beach with the sand drawings.”
The business is also very much rooted in its Calder Valley community, as its involvement in Hebden Bridge’s Pumpkin Festival goes to show. “Using things like pumpkins to talk about climate change, silly as it may seem, is a way of accessing everybody. Kids start asking their parents ‘what’s climate change?’ and children wanting to know about things like this is really important and it was good to see people having those discussions, including some people who perhaps usually wouldn’t be engaged by it. Little festivals like that I think are really important.”
The team is working on more high-profile projects this year, including a long-held ambition to build a forest that they want to call “a forest of humanity” which is in the pipeline.
Much of their work is about highlighting issues surrounding climate change, the natural world and inequality. “It’s about winning the hearts and minds,” says Jamie, “and with artworks we can touch people.”
He cites the influence of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series a few years back that brought home the dreadful impact the vast swathes of plastic waste in our oceans is having on marine life.
“We’ve known about plastic in the oceans for many years, but it’s only when people’s conscience is affected by it that they go ‘this needs to change.’ I’m realistic, I know if we do an artwork everything isn’t suddenly going to change but we are a small part of the movement of trying to inspire change.
"And when that happens, when the population genuinely wants change then politicians and their policies will follow.”