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One person's IP-ART 2003
Review by Borin Van Loon, July 2003

Rather than my default setting with regard to art shows in the town ("Oh, have I missed it?" balanced with "I didn't know it was on..."), I decided - on the personal front - to make the most of Ipswich's first ever art festival.

The Corn Exchange (30.6.03) played host to the Osagyefo Theatre: a ten-piece Ghanaian troupe of dancers, singers and percussionists (most of them doing all three). Thunderous djembe drumming, colourful athletic, humorous dancing and everyone involved ecstatic mayhem ensued. The Lady Mayor danced, too. If the Crosscurrents initiative brings more World Music performers and artists of this calibre to the area, they'll be doing us a great service.

The John Russell Gallery in Wherry Lane showed paintings by Nicola Slattery. Two words: 'Marc' and 'Chagal'. Probably a bit unfair; the colourful work has a certain naive charm. Jonathan Clarke's unique cast aluminium sculptures in the side gallery are a weightier prospect. Elegant, thought-provoking pieces with great presence.


Malcolm Moseley, in the 'Our Town' exhibition

The Wolsey Gallery in the mansion was packed with art for the open 'Our Town' show. Amateurs, professionals (including several Freelance members), plus selections from the Borough's collection. The subject: Ipswich in all its variety. Of course, there are some you like and some you hate in such a huge range of style and content (mainly paintings and prints, but also including several sculptures and a video piece). Personal favourites: the gasometer by the docks, a fine, detailed etching in shaped mount by Nick Ward (1992) and the wonderful, polychrome tower (pre-pollution) of St Lawrence Church in Dial Lane painted in a gorgeous diffuse sunlight by Howard Gaye in 1882, presumably from the basket of a hot air balloon (both these works from the permanent collection would make fine, desirable posters, Ipswich!). Also the large acrylic painting of skateboarders outside the Willis building: 'View from St Nicholas Church, Ipswich' by Reg Snook and charming, vibrant watercolours in '1930s style' (my term) of the Sproughton sugar beet factory and barges at the Wet Dock by David Vincent Thomas. Little pockets of miniatures were tucked away in suitably small displays - with a miniature entry in the Ip-art booklet, which is why I missed Miniature Magic when combing through it. Ferial Rogers, of Freelance and member of the Society of Limners (miniature portraitists; from the Old French 'luminer' to illuminate, my dictionary tells me) shows tiny, perfect paintings on ivorine; there were miniature books and a mini-Cardinal Wolsey in a Hampton Court setting, too.

'A Construct of Time', by contrast, occupied a space familiar to many Freelancers from our Christmas exhibitions in the gallery above Lakeland. Stripped of its screens and with only four exhibitors inhabiting the spacious gallery, Steve Joyce's playful 3-D human profiles of the famous hung from an ancient beam. He also offered us a shrine-like Tree Of Life populated by translucent-winged creatures in the Chapel Room (mind your head...). The uses to which the Ancient House has been put over the centuries was reflected in Margaret Wyllie's free-standing spheres of raw wool (wool merchant's house), fishing line and metalic fabric fish (fishmonger's), dried flowers and herbs (nosegays against the plague), shredded 1880 book (the Ancient House once housed the embryonic Ipswich Public Library, also of course Hatchards bookshop, boo-hoo!) and finally, a football made of plastic strands and a plastic shoe (to represent Lakeland). Emma Reynolds makes cellular sculptures out of silk and shellac (a resin secreted by the lac insect, the aforementioned dictionary tells me) and insect corpses, but seems quite nice really. Chris Summerfield produced pure white wood and plaster shapes to emulate those visible from the Vodka Bar. (I had to go down to the Wet Dock to discover that this is yet another name for the former Malt Kiln pub.) Gestural boat hulls, bottle-shaped oast houses, concrete boxes (a la Paul's maltings) and a squiggly thing I have yet to define.


St Mary-at-Quay

Inspiration: three churches on the Quay gave me the excuse to look inside these enigmatic, enormous structures now elbowed into what at first glance appears to be an overcrowded traffic island surrounded by two race tracks. The three lofty towers haunt the dockland area, largely cut off from the water by barriers of concrete and brick. They are testimony to the central role of this area in old Ipswich; they may even hold the key to its successful regeneration in the 21st century. If only we could bury the roads... but that would destroy the archaeology, and there must be lots. St Peters, lest we forget, was the church intended by Cardinal Wolsey to act as the chapel (some chapel!) to his ill-fated university college. For Ip-art it contained in its nave a tent-like ring of photographic banners you walked inside. Made with a huge hand-constructed camera (plenty of black polythene sheeting by the look of the information boards), the random exposures by Mark Limbrick of sculptor Laurence Edwards' work on a seemingly life-size sculptural figure were somewhat oblique. I expected the actual piece to be round the back, near the altar, but no such luck: it had been deliberately destroyed. Apparently it all took a year to create ( and destroy). Interesting wobbly wood-block floor tiles underfoot, though, and a marvellous barn-like roof interior. St Mary-at-Quay was rather wonderful. As it bucketed down outside, this amost completely empty ecclesiastical space was host to a riot of colour. Art you could walk on and, surely, the biggest piece in Ip-art 2003. The whole floor of the nave was covered in multicoloured A4 sheets of copier paper. So simple, yet so effective.


Phillip Vaughan-Williams

Emma Johnson's shredded letters

St Clements skull

St Clements is the only church of the three which retains its own tree lined graveyard and, it turns out, more of its interior furnishings than the others. The two pieces exhibited in the huge space were a bit lost. In fact, if you didn't know that Phillip Vaughan-Williams (a visitor to a Freelance meeting a while ago) had placed his work (eight conical piles of ash on black sqaures) in front of the altar, you'd miss it. No additional lighting and a lack of background information, left one wondering... Emma Johnson's shredded letters, pieced back into long ribbons and suspended from a line accross the belly of the church had more presence. The actual painted decoration on the plaster and rather bizarre memorials in this, 'the mariners' church' held just as much interest. A skull topped with Roman emperor's olive-leaf wreath next to the choir pews was best. The roof looks to have been replaced with a rather well-mannered plaster and timber affair after the wartime bombing, I assume.

Back to the Corn Exchange on Friday 4th July for the Red Rose Chain drama production 'Body and Soul' which mingled the lead-up to a Latin American dance competition with the emotional, sexual and inter-relational themes drawn from the main characters' personal lives. The level of dance and 'dance practice' interspersed by conversation demonstrated by the lead couple was excellent. Audience involvement took the form of discussions after each act with the cast and a mass cha-cha at the end. This youth thatre group have a production of 'Macbeth' at Rendlesham Theatre later in the summer and is much recommended.

Music in the Park on Sunday the 7th maintained its usual high standards, transforming Christchurch Park into a splendid mixture of sounds and smells, colour and life. Balloon sculptures could be bought on the way down to hear chamber music in the Wolsey Gallery, rock'n'roll echoed from several big stages and shifts between bands and artists were done very proficiently. The Suffolk Samba Band tested the pointing on the front walls of the Mansion and kept the audience enthralled with their usual restrained performance. Tarrying to listen to South of the Border on the Radio Suffolk stage meant that I missed The Vaults from Stowmarket on the Snow Hill stage by a whisker; recently saw them at the Mayday concert in Alexandra Park - a band to watch as they are supporting ZZTop on a stadium tour shortly! Pink Floyd's 'Shine on you crazy diamond' was recreated note-for-note earlier on and Salty Dog had the mosh-pit seething amidst the stage smoke with their Levellers/The Men They Couldn't Hang style of hybrid Irish folk/rock just as we were leaving. Considering it had been thrashing down with rain at 7 that morning, we were damnably lucky with the weather.


The Mariner

Time for a walk down the river path. Having failed to find the new public sculpture 'The Mariner' during a quick survey between Bourne Bridge and Princes Street bridge on the evening of the Skate Park contribution to Ip-art 2003 - sadly the afternoon was rained off, but the evening exhibitions of skateboarding, BMX and skating went very well (my son reports) to the sound of rock music in the tropical closeness - we started again from the station. Now, I've looked up and down the canalised sections of the Gipping from road and bridge on many occasions, but shamefully, I've never been down on the 'tow path'. I even had a bicycle pinched from the station years ago, which ended up in the river and was rescued by the police. The tireless work of the River Action Group is gradually transforming this industrial highway which winds through what was once ancient marshland towards the pastoral mills above the Claydon gravelpits and Blakenham, finally reaching Stowmarket. Today it is difficult to imagine some stretches of the Gipping as ever having been navigable, but seeing the town end close up with sloping concrete banking and upright steel platework flood-defences, one wonders if it could be a waterway for small pleasure vessels once again - tides permitting. The heat of midday was almost overpowering as we crossed from the rail station to the bridge and decended on the cycle path on the Kartouche side. This path is a fine achievement and makes an interesting ride past present and former industrial sites, giving views of familar buildings and roads tranformed by the river views. In a few hundred metres we reached the site of this most recent addition to the public art in the town 'The Mariner' sculpture by John Atkin, glimpsed in the distance from the bridge. It really is impressive in its scale and, psychologically, its remoteness. The Ranelagh Road level crossing is close by and must be the best view of the sculpture, if only drivers would glance accross the river. The setting in a higher position above the river path has been softened by planting which will soon fill out and the tall metal structure set on its own wheels sits in an area of wood chippings. Shiny silver features glint out of the (deliberately) rusty surfaces - a patina which is apparently designed to protect the shipwright's steel.

The Graham and Oldham Artists' Gallery played host to Painters from the Wapping Group. A large number of artists were represented by mainly modestly sized, well-mannered watercolour landscapes and still lifes. Fred Beckett's dazzling oil of 'Boule in the Tuilleries' was slightly less vibrant in the flesh than it appeared on the publicity card, but was the high point.


Our Lady of Ipswich

And then there was the determined group of artists working in the Ipswich Transport Museum - more signing and publicity needed here for a dedicated body of regular volunteers plus the visiting visual artists using the preserved vehicles and props as inspiration. The pastel of the little rusted blue industrial three wheeler cab was particularly striking. Much praise for a gallant and somewhat remote outpost of Ip-art. And we musn't forget the rebirthm of Ipswich Carnival as music and street theatre, with participants proudly bearing bizarre giant sculptures towering over dancers, singers and musicians. The sun shone on this evening event and Cornhill rollicked and rocked. It is this courageous seedcorn-planting which, one hopes will build into a memorable annual event. I even had time to wander for the first time ever into the ancient church of St Mary-At-Elms, throught the 11th century Norman doorway to find the splendid carved oak replica of the original Madonna and Child: 'Our Lady of Ipswich' which was once the centre of the medieval shrine in nearby Lady Lane (now a concrete passage at the top of Westgate Street). Somehow the original was stealthily rescued from the destruction wreaked by Henry VIII and installed in a remote chapel in Nettuno on the west coast of Italy. The sculptor, Robert Mellamphy, visited and took careful measurements and made drawings to be able to produce an extraordinary replica for Ipswich. The church itself is connected to Walsingham and contains related, slightly odd iconography and colour.


Carnival on Cornhill Ipswich

So, how did it all go? I was only able to see around a third of the events on offer, but I hope my comments are both encouraging of those dedicated to the idea of an arts festival in Ipswich and expressive of my pleasure in the exploration of the fruits of their labours. Put aside criticisms and carping, apart from that which will help to make next year's Ip-art bigger and better. I do hope there is one... We badly need the big, powerful organisations in Ipswich to celebrate Ip-art. The borough council, the local press (several people I spoke to said 'What arts festival?' and 'What carnival - why wasn't there more in the Evening Star?'), companies and others. Many individuals, through goodwill and unpaid hard work have made it happen this time; they deserve support and praise and financial backing next time to spread the benefits to a greater percentage of the population and really put Ipswich onto the arts map.

At the time of writing, I have yet to see the 'All Mixed Up' show at the The Room Upstairs in the Mansion before it closes, which involves Malcolm Moseley... but I will....

--Borin Van Loon, July 2003