This evening I watched the final part of the Channel 4 series Big Art, to my mind just about the most inspiring exploration of the relevance of art that there’s been on TV. The series featured seven public art projects and the final programme suggested that the St Helens project, spearheaded by a group of ex-miners from the Sutton Manor colliery, had been the most successful, taking the miners on a journey of discovery to the point where they politely rejected artist Jaume Plensa’s first idea (a giant illuminated miner’s lamp), to argue for something which looked not to the past, but to the future: Dream.

Today was the official opening of Dream and after watching Big Art I went off to see it for myself. It is truly beautiful, the dolomite stone chosen by Plensa glows, especially in the setting sun. On the way up to the sculpture I met two children with their father, both enthused by the artwork: the girl eagerly showing me the drawings she had made in her notebook and the boy exclaiming ‘I touched it!’.  Around the sculpture, everyone seemed eager to talk and express their admiration for the work. Several people compared it to Antony Gormley’s Another Place and spoke about how lucky we are to have two such major public artworks on our doorstep in the Northwest.

The sculpture is on the site of the former Sutton Manor Colliery. It is 20m (66 feet) in height and is constructed of 90 blocks of concrete containing dolomite marble aggregate that makes the sculpture glow. It started three years ago when a group of miners who had been friends and worked together at the colliery, applied to the council for a grant to create a piece of art.

“We didn’t want the site to die as a whole” said former miner Gary Conley. “We wanted something that would create a visitor attraction.”

The Dream represents the face of a 9 year old girl with her eyes closed in a dream like state; reflecting on what used to be on the site – a mine, but also looking to the future. The porcelain appearance of the sculpture is in sharp contrast to the blackness of the coal that lay in the mine beneath.

This was a unique project bringing together miners and artist. A total contrast between the miners who worked in the dark and the artist whose work is based around light. The Spanish sculptor, Jaume Plensa who met the miners to formulate the design for the piece, said the miners had said to him “you must remember – working in the dark: light is a dream”. It was these words that conceived the sculpture.

Gary Conley says:

When we were approached over two years ago to nominate the site, the ex-miners of the focus group and I would have been happy to just have a memorial erected on the site. Now, following our Big Art journey, our eyes have been opened to what art can mean to a community. Consequently we wanted something that was more than just another mining monument. Thanks to this fantastic artist, Jaume Plensa, I believe we have a piece of artwork that not only reflects the past heritage of the site but also projects it into the future. Sutton Manor Colliery may never produce coal again, but now, because of this wonderful piece of artwork, its soul and its millions of memories will live on.

Jaume Plensa commented:

My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance. I fell in love with this site in St.Helens as soon as I saw it! The spectacular setting, proud heritage, vision for the future, and the warmth, humour and passion of the former miners I have met are all truly inspirational. To have been invited to capture the essence, hopes, and aspirations of a whole community on this scale is a great honour but also an awesome responsibility.

The sculpture cost £1.9m, but is not being paid for by the local council. Council leader, Brian Spencer, himself a former miner, stated that the money was coming from grants from various sources including “the Forestry Commission and the North-West Development Agency.”

As the sun sank slowly in the west at the end of a glorious day and we all drifted down the hill back to waiting cars, I felt we should raise a glass to Gary Conley and his fellow miners, and to the other activists for public art featured in the Big Art series – the youngsters of Burnley who wanted to be able to Google ‘Burnley’ and get more than riots; the residents of Cardigan who argued furiously about, but finally accepted Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Turbulence, an interactive installation consisting of a cluster of buoys on the River Teifi illuminated by the voices of passers-by; the community workers and residents of North Belfast who chose Northern Light, by Vong Phaophanit and Claire Obussier intended to create a sculptural ‘third space’ – an elevated space for public use between the two Park lakes, as a metaphor of transformation and bridging the sectarian divide; and all the others featured in the series who argued passionately for public art.

‘Dream Girl’ by Carl Sandburg

You will come one day in a waver of love,
Tender as dew, impetuous as rain,
The tan of the sun will be on your skin,
The purr of the breeze in your murmuring speech,
You will pose with a hill-flower grace.

You will come, with your slim, expressive arms,
A poise of the head no sculptor has caught
And nuances spoken with shoulder and neck,
Your face in a pass-and-repass of moods
As many as skies in delicate change
Of cloud and blue and flimmering sun.

You may not come, O girl of a dream,
We may but pass as the world goes by
And take from a look of eyes into eyes,
A film of hope and a memoried day.

St Helens’ Dream sculpture unveiled


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