I returned to Lancashire for the weekend, and went for a walk with my mum and dad.
We parked the car near the colliery gates. . .

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. . .and we made our way over the landscape which covers the site of the mine. The trees thinned and the ground rose up before us.

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Then this appeared, luminous among the weeds and rushes.

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We went to get a better view.

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Those of you who live in Lancashire, or who have been watching Channel 4’s Big Art Project will know that this is Dream, the arresting and very beautiful piece of public sculpture commissioned from Catalan artist, Jaume Plensa. Mining has been at the heart of St Helens for four hundred years until 1991, when Sutton Manor Colliery closed. A group of ex-miners nominated the colliery as the site of a new landmark work of art: a piece that they felt should not merely be commemorative or contemplative, but forward looking and inspirational. After conversations with the local community, Plensa designed a piece that is suggestive both of the “dream of light when you are working in darkness” and the old Victorian motto of the town, “ex terra lucem” (out of the earth comes light). The finished sculpture was unveiled on May 31st, and quietly sits above the landscape of Sutton Manor Community Forest, the focal point of a space that is emphatically for public use.

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Dream is a child in sleep, her features smoothed away. But there’s a promise about her too that is more than a little discomfiting. Those eyelids might well flicker into life. What will she see if her eyes open? Will she rise up further from the earth?

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When we were there, there were lots of people. Everyone spent time looking at the sculpture, and everyone seemed to want to touch it. Kids ran about, adults posed for photographs, lay on their backs in the sun, ate picnics. Several hundred thousand people have apparently already visited Dream since its unveiling on May 31st, and I’m very pleased to have been one of them. Local feeling about the sculpture is incredibly positive, though there have been a few sadly predictable complaints that Dream does not dominate the landscape enough to be seen from the motorway. There’s not much you can say to someone whose test of whether something is a landmark or not is its visibility from the M62, but why not actually stop your car, get out, and take a look? Why not walk the less than half a mile up over the old pit, through this great landscape that the forestry commission have now transformed? Why not sit on the steps around the base of Plensa’s Dream, and look back down on the amazing space of the North West all around you?

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Dream stands twenty metres high but is not in the least monumental. It wears its status as a piece of public art quite lightly. The child’s face, the closed eyes, mean that there is an intimacy about it and the space in which it sits. This intimacy, and the way the work speaks back to the landscape of St Helens, means that the piece will not just be an end in itself, but will become the occasion of other dreams for this landscape. All good.

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18 thoughts on “ex terra lucem

  1. As a ‘Sintelliner’ I have to say that I’m pleased to live in a place that has such a fantasic piece of public artwork. There are, of course complaints and criticism from the locals (but as they are from locals then thats okay…I dare anyone from out of town to say anything). The funniest comments are on the facebook group ‘St helens back in the day’).

    For those who are looking to visit, its off the M62, just follow the signs. I warn you know though there isn’t much else there, but I would urge you to visit the town, just follow the signs to the town, its practically I straight road to it!

    For those that say there isn’t anything in St Helens, I encourage you to visit the ‘World of Glass, the ‘Godfrey Pilkington gallery’ (small but beautifully formed!), see whats on at the Theatre Royal or the Citadel, take a walk around Sherdley Park…

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  2. This is lovely, and I was totally ignorant of its existence… Malvern to Keighley via St. Helens perhaps? Great motto, too, and thanks for the translation!

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  3. Your photos are beautiful. I had no idea this was there, your post has made me resolve to go and see it when I’m visiting my dad in Liverpool in July. Thanks!

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  4. Another Wow – this piece is so arresting that I was sure the photographs were photoshopped and that you were pulling one on us for fun – seriously, I couldn’t believe it was real. Then I kept scrolling down and saw this was indeed a real piece of art. Incredible. Beautiful. I can’t even imagine seeing it with your own eyes and being there.

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  5. How interesting a piece of art that is! I find it disturbing and intriguing. What an interesting thing it would be to see in person and interact with. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. A thoughtful post navigating some of the crucial points surrounding Public Art and the difficulties of making it work in reality. It sounds as though the processes of commissioning, consulting, connecting and creating with/for a specific place and community worked well in this case; although naturally you can never please the Motorway Drive-Thru-Art enthusiasts…

    I love your photos of the piece and your description of people touching it and looking at it and eating their picnics around it; that’s what it’s meant to be all about.

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  7. Lovely to see a piece of Public Art that “works” so well with the place and the community. So many pieces of Public Art are ill-conceived and unpopular. The really good ones so shine out.

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  8. This is really beautiful. I loved seeing it on the Channel 4 programme when it was really cloudy. My mum lives five minutes walk from one of the other ‘Big Art’ projects – the Beckton Alps, a gigantic old slag heap (which had a brief life as an artificial ski slope) with terrfic views of Canary Wharf and beyond. I’m really hoping that that one will be realised too and that I can soon walk up a rejuvenated alp with my mum.

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  9. It’s beautiful and powerful in the daylight, but it would be interesting to see it at night too. I hope I get to visit and see it in person sometime.

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  10. Oooh, my childhood home! I was very little when the pit closed but I do remember my street being on television. I haven’t been to see this yet, but I will, especially after seeing your photos.

    P.S. Lancashire feels much more ‘right’ than Merseyside for Sutton Manor doesn’t it? And I say that having a great deal of feeling for both places.

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  11. Wow, my husband’s been talking about some sculpture thing somewhere over towards clockface that he can see from the roundabout at J8 and we were planning to head that way next weekend, can’t wait now and hope the sun comes back out. It looks impressive, Thanks for that!

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