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On the trail of profitable art;FE Focus

Stafford College is creating a millennium sculpture park to showcase its students' work. Michael Prestage reports.

The towering figure of cricketer WG Grace beside the bowling green at Victoria Park, Stafford, is just one of 20 or so sculptures showcasing the talents of students on a unique course.

Stafford College claims it is the only one offering a figurative sculpture course teaching techniques that may be decried as too commercial by purists, but which ensure a high employment rate for those who graduate.

As well as acquiring skills that Michelangelo would recognise, the students learn how to cost and market their work and are encouraged to take private commissions early on in the two-year course.

For those completing the course - and the retention and pass rate is high - careers await in film and television advertising, museums, public works commissions and the ceramics and giftware industry.

Commissions the students have recently undertaken involve busts of the chairman of the county council and the footballer Steve Bull and a piece for Virgin Trains. The Angel of the North it isn't, but as the staff point out there is always a market for sculptures of ballerinas and beautiful women.

Course tutor Andy Edwards learnt his trade at Madame Tussaud's. He asked the local council to back a sculpture trail in the 13-acre park and it committed pound;30,000 to the venture.

"Initially, the idea was for a single piece to mark the millennium, but it seemed more appropriate and useful to the students to push for something bigger and more long-term than that," he said.

"It will bring art to a wider audience and it gives the students a chance to work on bigger pieces that cost might have otherwise prevented them from tackling."

Generally there was a shortage of sculptors able to produce high-standard work, he said, while the public demand was growing.

The approach of the millennium has encouraged a large number of public works commissions.

"What we offer as a course is very traditional. This is a condensed version of the apprenticeship of a century ago. It is a neglected industry. Nationwide, I think the standards of sculpture students are poor. People nowadays forget that everything worthwhile takes time to do."

Having the chance to exhibit in the sculpture trail would also give students a prestigious piece of work to include in their portfolio, he added. It provided an important boost to their chances of securing private commissions.

Maureen Compton, chair of the council's recreation and amenities committee, said: "Stafford is tremendously fortunate in having a pool of superb artistic talent right on its doorstep. This proposal is a wonderful opportunity for the council to work with the college to provide the showcase for a wider cross-section of the public to see what these talented young people can create."

There are 32 students currently taking the BTEC HND in figurative sculpture and modelling. The course's international reputation is reflected in next year's intake of students from Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Jane Garner, 35, studied set design at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London. But after working in the theatre for a number of years decided on a change of career. The Stafford course was the place to go to fulfil her ambition.

"I didn't want the sort of course where you have a pile of tyres and a couple of lumps of metal and call it 'Man's Inhumanity to Man'," she said. "I wanted to learn the technique of traditional sculpture."

An advantage of the course is meeting sculptors who are working professionally and she has already had a couple of private commissions. "There is plenty of work out there and I feel confident I will be able to make a living."

She will be exhibiting a piece called Girl With a Dove in the trail for which her 12-year-old daughter Kate modelled. "I am very proud of this course and the work we have done here," she said.

Angela Bellshaw-Lange, 23, moved from her home in Dursley, Gloucestershire, to attend the course and has already found a job making figurines for a giftware company. She will be exhibiting Charlotte - The Dancing Girl.

She said: "The course has been brilliant. I've enjoyed working with the other sculptors and whatever idea you come up with the tutors try to make it possible."

Anne Piercy, head of the school of arts at the college, said Stafford had a tradition of figurative sculpture that goes back to the 1960s and the current course had been running for five years.

She said: "The vision and enthusiasm that established that tradition is being continued and the sculpture trail will give people the chance to see the quality of work being produced by our students.

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