A Sculptor's Development: Anthony Caro. A retrospective exhibition and education projectLewes, East Sussex, Lewes is on a quest. Stirred from its quintessentially English backwaterdom (with bohemian touches), its citizens, from schoolchildren to OAPs, are caught up in a radical crusade: they want their home town to become to sculpture what Wimbledon is to tennis. Last autumn, Lewes suffered the worst floods in the country, with hundreds of homes and businesses under water. From tomorrow, people are celebrating not only having at last dried out their basements, but the opening in the town hall of a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Sir Anthony Caro, one of the leading British modernist abstract sculptors of the past five decades, best known for his large-scale welded steel constructions.
The wide-ranging education programme that underpins the show began in February, with East Sussex groups including children and teachers visiting Caro's studio in Camden, London, and working with the sculptor and his technicians. The pupils' open and searching questions during these encounters - the simple, straightforward stuff that adults are often afraid to ask, such as, "how do you start a piece of art?" - have shaped the exhibition, which aims to make Caro's work accessible to a wider public. His conversations with children from the Pells CE primary school and others are recorded in the exhibition catalogue. This has been designed as a teaching aid, with ideas for classroom work throughout, but it also charts Caro's place in 20th-century art history, and his role as an educator. Originally an engineering graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, Caro studied at the Royal Academy schools in London in the 1950s and became an assistant to Henry Moore. For the next 26 years, until 1979, he taught part-time at St Martin's School of Art and exerted considerable influence over several generations of artists.
Children at the Pells, an improving primary school that last week officially opened in new premises, have been keeping a sketchbook diary of Caro-related ideas and images since their meeting with him last term. Their work, along with that of pupils from other East Sussex schools working on Caro's ideas, is to be exhibited in the autumn in the Thebes Gallery, a recently established contemporary art venue run by Lewes council.
Pells pupils from reception to Year 6 have been making Caro-inspired sculpture for the past few months. The school's art co-ordinator, Jo O'Regan, says the project is having a profound effect: "Children who have difficulties, who can barely read, have been able to develop quite complex structures and appreciate abstract concepts. It's been a huge release for them. A lot of grown-ups find Caro difficult, but these children are very accepting and love his large architectural pieces. They love the texture, are fascinated by his shapes." Mica Gander, seven, says: "I like the way he makes things and puts shapes together. I want to make things like him." Ben Stevens, eight, says: "I like to look at all the different materials in his sculpture."
Fascinated by Caro's ideas of experiencing sculpture from the inside as well as out, reception and Year 1 children have made a seashell large enough for a child to curl up in, to explore the sound and feel of a sculpture from all angles. The whole initiative is due to the efforts of former Pells pupil Paul Myles, a Lewes businessman who first met Caro when the sculptor came to open an exhibition of Rodin's "The Kiss", on loan to Lewes town hall from the Tate Gallery in 1999.
"The Kiss" had originally resided in Lewes, having been commissioned from Auguste Rodin by a local 19th-century collector, Edward Perry Warren. It was Mr Myles who was responsible for bringing it home. After an apprenticeship at Phoenix Ironworks in Lewes, now closed, he had set up his own structural engineering company, specialising in building and moving difficult structures. He found a way of transporting "The Kiss", weighing 3.5 tonnes and worth pound;7.5 million, and helped stage its return with the advice of Ann Elliott, a curator seconded from the Tate and an associate curator at Goodwood Sculpture Park.
The 1999 exhibition attracted national coverage and put Lewes on the map. Mr Myles says: "Trade was up by 30 per cent on the high street. It brought all sorts of people together - businessmen, local politicians, teachers."
After the Rodin show, Caro, who shares the engineer's fascination with the properties of steel, agreed to hold a retrospective in Lewes. By this time, Mr Myles and Ms Elliott had set up a company to turn Lewes into a regional centre for sculpture. Christine Hall, an art teacher formerly at Northease Manor school in Rodmell, is running the educational programme funded by the company.
And, from tomorrow, daily workshops in the Corn Exchange will give the public experience of making large-scale sculptures (some of the visitors will use the welding booth designed by Mr Myles). Workshops will be led by Hamish Black, a sculptor who has worked with Caro, and Derek Howarth, Caro's studio assistant for many years. The aim, says Ms Elliott, is to give people the opportunity to understand and make contemporary sculpture "as sculptors make sculpture".
'A Sculptor's Development: Anthony Caro' is at Lewes town hall from June 30 to August 19. Tel: 01273 471469. Admission: adults pound;3, children aged 5-15 pound;2, families pound;8, concessions pound;2, school groups free when booked in advance. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; schools and groups 9.30am-3pm; Sundays 11am-5pm. For catalogue details tel: 01273 488600. Teacher's notes available on www.sculpturexhibitions.com