Art of elemental energies

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Elaine Williams visits the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where works by the great share the landscape with school groups' creations.

In a corner of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park lies an area of open woodland littered with wood shavings and a variety of natural materials. Out of this detritus emerge sculptures of all kinds, a monumental sun dial, a sheep made of twigs and sack cloth, an elephant carved from oak, plaster figures clinging to tree trunks.

Walking among the magnificent trees you are struck by the inventiveness and industry of the people - children and adults - who have felt inspired to create here.

A marquee tent in the corner of the area provides the classroom. This is the educational space of the Sculpture Park and school groups come here in all weathers, making sculptures in snow, responding to the environment and the sweeping landscape, stimulated by the Sculpture Park's collections to make art themselves out of the materials at hand very much in the vein of Andy Goldsworthy.

This is an impressive site. In a pocket of stunning countryside near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, the Sculpture Park, which was founded in 1977, lies in the 18th century grounds of Bretton Hall.

The Park is the home of the work of great English sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, both of whom in their early years lived and worked in Yorkshire and were greatly influenced by its landscape. As with the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives, it is refreshing to see Hepworth in a natural setting, rather than in city art galleries or as decorative additions to Sixties and Seventies office blocks where her work can look tired and time-constrained. Out here in the park they come alive, animated by the dramatic vagaries of the English weather in the hills.

The Sculpture Park is an arena for a range of sculptural experiences, which is a great attraction for any visitor. There are sculptures which respond specifically to its landscape; there are sculptors who produce work on site; there are indoor exhibitions in the Bothy and Pavilion galleries which enable work such as that of the minimalist Kim Lim to be seen in a more intimate setting. But it also serves as an outdoor gallery to visiting exhibitions of world-class sculpture.

A unique national venue, it has hosted the Elizabeth Frink Memorial exhibition; the largest open air exhibition ever mounted of the work of the turn-of-the-century French sculptor Emile Antoine Bourdelle. Over 70 bronzes, some of them monumental, were transferred from the Bourdelle Museum in Paris for this memorable exhibition. It has hosted the work of Ossip Zadkine, Lynn Chadwick, Anthony Caro and, right now, works by the Austrian sculptor Karl Pranti. A current exhibition on the Hillside is a display of bronzes by Rodin, Bourdelle, Buxin, Bernard, Cornet and Wlerick on loan from the Bruton Gallery in Somerset.

Funded by the Henry Moore Foundation, the Polish artist Joanna Przybyla is working on a piece in situ, covering a vast area of ground with torn pieces of fallen timber, salvaged from winter snow storms. In 1991 the Chilean sculptor Frederico Assler created two huge elemental figures, male and female on site out of concrete, which are permanent exhibits. He wrote at the time: "A work outside is always changing because of the light, the weather, seasons and surroundings, trees, earth, sky. I like my work to take its place alongside nature, to be a part of life."

For Anna Bowman, the Sculpture Park's education officer, this chance to see sculpture responding to nature, and sculptors working in nature, forms the "illuminating experience" for teachers and children.

An Access Sculpture Trail with a totem pole, a tree house, wind chimes, whispering grasses and a red phone box is designed for those with learning, physical and visual difficulties. A place which makes sculpture immediately accessible and fun, and where performance artists and musicians also work, the trail is well used by schools.

Rather than running set courses and providing worksheets and teachers' packs, Anna Bowman likes to respond to schools' specific needs. Teachers should certainly come well-prepared. Anna Bowman will visit schools to talk about the sculptures; a day's visit to the Park might entail a tour in the morning and a making session in the open-air in the afternoon.

Teachers have access to a range of inexpensive catalogues since Anna Bowman encourages them to read the work of artists and art critics rather than educationists. She says: "We have to encourage visual literacy. We want to form a bridge between school art and the art world." As many as 15,000 school children pass through the Sculpture Park annually and the education service can accommodate between five and six groups a day as long as their visits are pre-arranged.

* Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield, WF4 4LG. Tel: 01924 830642.

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