A current photography job I’m working on is documenting the regeneration project near the seafront in the North Marine Park, South Shields – really handy because I only live 2 minutes away. Within the building and restoration work pieces of public art are planned so I got in touch with the artist commissioned for the work…..I am currently working on designs for a large contemporary steel Beacon in North Marine Park, South Shields. The Beacon takes inspiration from the Lawe Top Beacons built in 1832. The words on the Beacon preserve maritime trade names and celebrate the character of the people of South Shields. The words and trade names have been suggested by the local community.
Do you always involve the community in a project ? Involving local communities is an essential part of my working practice. I have over 25 years of experience and knowledge in this area. For previous projects I have devised a wide range of community consultation programs involving local people and schoolchildren, from presentations through to hands on practical sculpture workshops and longer artist in residence programs. This work helps me refine ideas and sometimes new ideas are formed which develop into final sculptures.
It’s also equally important that local people have an opportunity to work together and create something positive for their community, to gain a sense of pride and ownership in the process and the final artwork. The processes involved in the engagement work is as important as the resulting artwork.
An interesting example of this approach can be seen in the sculpture ‘Breaking the Mould’ which takes the form of a giant seed which has emerged from an old industrial mould. The mould is broken and no longer useful but the last cast to be made is a new natural life form. The symbolism creates a striking resonance with the former and future uses of many of the 21 regeneration sites across England and Wales called Changing Places.
(The £60 million Changing Places program transformed 1,000 hectares of post-industrial derelict land into parks and open spaces).
Where did the idea come from ? During dialogue with East Manchester Ladies knitting group I distinctly remember writing some of the things they were saying to me, like ‘turning over a new leaf’, and ‘Breaking the Mould’ as we discussed their desire to move on and leave behind the scarred industrial landscape, changing it into a urban park and community facility through the Changing Places project.
What got you interested in art, was there a ‘wow’ moment when you saw something ? Not really, my upbringing was probably the biggest influence on that. It was a very creative upbringing.
McKeown grew up in a working class area of Middlesbrough, Teesside, UK, as the youngest in a family of four children…. We had a large garden where my father, a lifelong steelworker grew an abundance of fruit and veg. My mother was a primary school teacher and we were always building, making, cooking and exploring.
The family lived only a couple of miles away from the shipyards, coke ovens, blast furnaces and rolling mills of British Steel and the chemical plants of ICI… If we were feeling energetic, we would walk or cycle to Redcar beach or Eston Hills where iron ore was mined to fuel the industrial revolution.
At school, art was always my favourite subject and this inspired me to attend art college and then a Fine Art degree in sculpture at Coventry Polytechnic.
Following education, Andrew worked as a community artist delivering school and community based workshops and small art projects…These were low budget projects such as one-off workshop days and artist in residence projects. Gradually larger projects became available and I was able to create my own artwork with the involvement of local communities, rather than solely community generated art.
What inspires you ? The industrial processes of casting and mould making influence my work in both a practical and conceptual way. I often create multiple cast sculptures in iron, steel, bronze, aluminium and stone – these are very durable materials for external artworks.
McKeown uses recurring themes within his work of growth, change and renewal…. I like to work within the environment and this often means I have to build identity and add character to a space that has very little. Often I am working in empty fields or urban parks that only have a few shrubs and paths or working off landscape plans while looking at building sites and piles or earth.
Rather than creating one giant sculpture I often use the available budget to create a family of related sculptures that link to each other and draw your eye to the environment they are in. Other times I create entrance features that hope to draw people into a space. I prefer that people can engage with my sculptures becoming almost part of them for a brief moment.
On average how long do you work on a project for a client ? This is very hard to answer but the larger projects can be spread out over years to plan and develop. Then when it comes to manufacturing this can take as little as 2 months or if I am making patterns and moulds for casting this might take six to eight months.
Is there a satisfying moment during the art process ? I think the most satisfying time is when I have the right idea for a project. One that I know that I like and know the client and the community are going to like and buy into. This can often be the most draining and difficult process and it can take a lot of research and community work similar to the Breaking the Mould idea which came after maybe 8 months of research and community engagement.
What else are you working on ? I am currently finalizing designs for a Teeside Retail Park called ‘Rolled into One’. For this project I am engaging the local community to provide colloquial job or occupation names from the local iron and steel industry. Up to one hundred of these names will be applied to the outsides of the steel box section arms of the sculpture. There are many unique and interesting names such as Welder, Plater, Catcher, Striker, Roller, Breaker, Burner that will be used and many more. I am currently consulting the local community including my family and friends.
I’m also working on a few other projects, one called ‘Crossing Points’ for Groundwork North East River Tees Rediscovered project, another project is for Middlesbrough Council within its Creative Factory artistic interventions project – my pieces are called ‘Endless Convenience’.
Andrew lives and works in the North East of England and is available for public and private commissions throughout the U.K. and internationally.
For more information and images for previous artwork visit:
Interview by Gary Alikivi June 2020.