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It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

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Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

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For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago was a very different place for most people. Twelve years ago, on a whim, I did something I’d never done before and it’s shaped my life ever since.

March 5th 2005. I don’t normally remember dates of things, but I seem to remember this one. It was a calm, sunny day and we were rowing giant red balls across Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District.

The year before I’d helped create a new festival of art in the landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District in the North of England. Off the back of that, the local tourist board wanted to know if I could do something to get a bit of media attention for the Lakes out of season. Maybe something big? I think their original idea was something along the lines of a big red nose for Comic Relief. The normal PR stunt thing. But while they were thinking of something 12ft tall, I was thinking something over a mile long.

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The original idea was a dotted line weaving the length of Grasmere – north to south. Needless to say the budget didn’t run to that, so a much smaller version was devised whereby the balls would rush towards the southern shore beneath Loughrigg with the balls getting progressively larger to accentuate the perspective.

The piece I believe was to be installed for a week or two. The balls were PVC and commissioned from a fabricator based on a farm in Devon and arrived in three large boxes that fitted in the boot of my Renault Clio. Lengths of sinking line were bought from the Ropemakers in Hawes, Yorkshire and concrete breeze blocks were bought from my local builders merchant in Kirkby Stephen for anchorage.

Grasmere was chosen as it was both a relatively small lake (one mile by half a mile, approx.) and conveniently placed at the edge of two local TV regions in the hope that both would show up and double the coverage. However, Grasmere has a little-known by-law prohibiting the use of powered vessels on it. The only way to get the balls in position was towing them in rowing boats.

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The largest ball at 4m diameter. Photo © Tony West

Luckily, the Faeryland Tearooms at the top of the lake had a small fleet of boats to hire and kindly stepped in to help, along with a bunch of artists volunteering for the cause. The prevailing winds off the Helvellyn range blew north to south in the mornings and with a relatively still day the elements were on our side. That’s not to say there’s anything even vaguely easy about towing big inflatable balls the size of a small house 3/4 mile across a lake. There was a small window in mobile phone coverage so the fine-tuning of the installation was done with me halfway up Loughrigg with binoculars and a cell-phone calling the people in what from there looked like very small boats.

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

From the clients’ perspective it worked well. We had TV and radio coverage across the whole of the North of England, some cracking photos and a good news story of artists doing things with the iconic landscapes of the Lake District National Park.

For me it was a very steep learning curve and baptism of fire into doing things of that scale. Among the things I learnt were practical things like the importance of calculating wind drag on large objects on water (they drifted lots), and the general volume of logistics to do something that looks quite simple.

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

But I also learnt lots more fundamental things about work of significant scale – the way light and weather affects and adds to the piece; the way colour works in landscapes; the interaction of people in appreciation of scale; what it feels like to experince work of that scale.

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The ‘final’ installation

The public were similarly receptive too. We were a little apprehensive as to how people would react to such a bold statement, but the fact that it was temporary, had a very light touch and used the surrounding landscape to become part of the work rather than challenging it drew visitors in their hundreds. We have no idea just how many people came to see it – we weren’t even thinking about that – but the local National Trust Estates Manager reckoned it was thousands based on the carpark use alone.

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Me 12 years younger!

We had no idea what the longer term effect would be. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the Lake District. There was a perception of overprotection from major stakeholders like the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority. However, that the piece was successful and very positively received made it so much easier to do similar works in the landscape in the future. Certainly from where I stood it was the piece that created a significant mind change in those organisations.

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The following morning the balls had drifted a little. Photo © Tony West

As landscape works go, this was very simple. It was made with very little thought to a wider context or depth of meaning. In the wider scheme of things it’s not a great piece of art. This wasn’t the first piece I’d done outdoors or using the landscape, but in terms of scale it was a new benchmark. I was hooked and almost every piece I’ve created since has a direct link back to that piece.

And it was 12 years ago today.

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

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Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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Good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue. Cliché cliché maybe.

I’ve had my fair share of mad, short timescale projects. Some so short they almost felt like instant pop-ups. ‘Level’ in Peterborough earlier this year was devised and realised in 30 days.

Level in Peterborough

The ‘Paviljong’ in Sweden was a 14 day project, while ‘Souvenir’ in Shanghai in 2006 was less than 10 days from concept to finished pieces. Pieces like this are born and raised on adrenalin. It’s the only way.

My latest project, on the other hand comes from the opposite end of the timescale spectrum. ‘PaperBridge’ has been hanging around my life on and off for nearly five years, but a couple of weeks ago it finally became a reality.

PaperBridge

Around 22,000 pieces of paper arch over a beck at the foot of the Helvellyn range in the English Lake District. The bridge weighed over 4 tonnes and could support the weight of 60 sheep (if you could fit that many on it), yet it didn’t use any glue, nuts, bolt, screws or any other fixings. It was just pure paper wedged between two cages of stone.

Despite the long gestation period, it’s still felt a bit of a whirlwind project and the last two weeks of my life have been some of the craziest in a long while.

The bridge is in a fairly remote valley in the Lake District. The nearest village is Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater. Getting to the village from anywhere else requires either a long winding journey down the length of the second longest lake in England, or up and over the Kirkstone Pass – one of the steepest mountain passes in the country. From Patterdale (population 400) the bridge is a good two mile walk up the Grisedale Valley. A mass-tourist destination it isn’t. Because it’s a bridge made only of paper I wasn’t sure how well it would take to thousands of people crossing it, so I put it in a place where I thought not so many people would venture. It’s on the main Coast to Coast long distance path and there’s a nice 5 mile circular from the Ullswater villages, so it would get passing visitors OK and maybe the odd person venturing out just to see it.

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I’d allowed four days for the install incase of bad weather and to have some breathing space. I’d got a good team to hep build – Phil had helped build an earlier test piece, Ewan and Michael built drystone walls in Teesdale together (Ewan was also part of the God’s Bridge project a couple of years back), and there was Li – a second year architecture student from Newcastle. It was a pretty simple build once we got started so it should all be straight forward.

Michael and Phil had built the gabion abutments the week before to give them time to settle. There was a fresh fall of snow on the fell tops that day. Walking up the track towards the valley head those rocky peaks looked the daunting mountains they really are. This was the wild Lakeland landscape I was after. Not the bit most of the 16-million tourists who visit the Lakes each year see. The shocking statistic is that around 95% of visitors to the Lakes don’t travel further than 80m from their cars. I’ve seen them down at Bowness on Windermere cooing over the water and boats, eating ice cream and happy to be in ‘The Lakes’. Chiang Yee had seen the same thing back in the 1930’s. It hasn’t changed. But for me, those mountains. Those scary crags are what have really shaped the western idea of landscape. Writers, thinkers, poets and artists have been inspired by these distant, towering rocks over the past 200 years. Their names as old and layered with hinted stories as the art they inspire – Dollywagon Pike, St. Sunday Crag, Pinnacle, Striding Edge. The stream the bridge crosses – Nethermost Cove Beck – its name littered with the remnants of a Viking past.

installing the gabions

It had been a glorious April on the whole and every site visit I’d made this year had been still and sunny. It lulled me into a false sense of security. The Cumbrian weather had other ideas come May.

The first day was due to be just getting materials onto site. I’d arranged for all the paper and the wooden formers to be delivered on the same wagon so that everything could be carted up the track by tractor in one go. By the time the delivery wagon arrived it had been raining for over 12 hours non-stop. We knew this was no longer going to be as simple as we wanted. I followed the wagon up the narrow and steep track to the farm in the pouring rain, grateful that finally things were arriving. Only to discover that instead of 7 pallets with 4 tonnes of paper, there was only two pallets to unload. With no mobile phone signal in the valley I left the the farmer to cart what was there up as near to the bridge site as he could get and the team to move it the last bit by hand while I went off to sort the case of the missing consignments.

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By the time the rest of the materials were delivered the next day so much rain had fallen in the valley that the farmer couldn’t get a tractor anywhere near the bridge site. A frustrating 24 hours where we could do no more than check into the cottage I’d rented for the team and twiddle our thumbs.

By 7am on day three the sun was out and the wind had dropped. After fuelling on breakfast butties and tea we got an early start on things.

First task was putting together the flat-packed plywood former that the bridge was to be built over. The form was designed with Peter Foskett who’d previously worked on the ‘Seven Spires’ piece back in 2011. The former was designed in two halves and precision cut by CNC machine in Carlisle. The form was held together by pegs cut from the same sheets so the whole thing could be assembled without tools. The form was then supported on screw jacks and acrow-props between the abutments. One of the key secrets in the formwork design was the way the two halves could be jacked-up in the middle to help get the final pieces of paper in and keep the compression high across the arch.

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Once the former was in, it should then be a simple process of stacking the paper over the top. Two packs of paper followed by a wedge made of smaller sheets – the size and quantity having been predetermined in the design process. Nice and simple.

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Only the paper was in packs of 100 sheets – each sheet measuring 900mm x 700mm. Each pack weighing 17kg. And ALL the packs were on pallets over 500m the other side of a bog. The only way to get the paper onto the site was to carry them by hand. All 168 of them.

This wasn’t going to be a quick process.

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possibly the most remote pallet of paper ever

Paper that size and in those quantities isn’t an easy thing to handle. Once out of their protective wrapping the packs quickly lose their shape and rigidity. What started out as a one person job to stack the paper became a five person task by the end of the day.

As the day progressed we got slicker at building and got into a rhythm. The weather continued to improve so we kept going while things were in our favour. But by 8pm we were exhausted. Twelve solid hours hefting large packs of paper around was enough.

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Elm How was a great base for the install team. A huge traditional farmhouse with amazing original flagstone spiral staircase, it was large and comfortable and quiet. And only 15 minute walk up to the bridge site. Surrounded by fields of pedigree swaledale yows with their newborn lambs and shorthorn cattle calving in the barn next door, by night it was all stars, hooting owls and wandering badgers. Its isolation came with disconnection from the rest of the world – no mobile signal, no internet. On a morning when the rest of the country was waking to the aftermath of the general election, we were blisfully unaware of any of it. And it was lovely.

My original plans had been to build the bridge mid-week and if we got ahead of ourselves we’d just wrap it up in tarpaulins until the Friday morning. There had been a fair bit of media interest in the bridge over the previous week or so and I’d booked a minibus to bring people halfway up the track for the press launch. The 16-seater bus had already been over booked with photographers and at least two different TV crews. However, on the Thursday night I’d driven down into the village to pick up some leaky wifi to send some emails and discovered that every single press photographer and TV crew had cancelled at the last minute to do vote counts.

So press launch was to be a no press launch.

At least the pressure was off. We just had to get the bridge built by late morning in time for whoever decided to still come on the bus.

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As the final pieces were being hammered into place as small crowd was gathering on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the bog. The couple staying in the cottage behind Elm How had also come down to lend a hand. The plan to raise the centre sections up to get the last pieces of paper in didn’t quite work to plan as the acrow-props were being jacked further into the river bed rather than lifting, so the final pieces were done more with brute force and heavy whacking.

By the time the wooden formers were lowered and slid out there was a fair crowd gathered along both sides of the beck. a loud cheer as the final piece was removed and the pure red arch remained leaping over the water. I had expected the arch to sink a little at the top as the formers were lowered, but all that hammering and wedging the final pieces paid off and it didn’t move a jot as one side then the other was gradually lowered and I could see daylight between the paper and the plywood.

Despite the nearly five years of development, the many scale models, the months of testing in all weathers, and the long hours designing every last millimetre – that sense of relief when finally those thousands of sheets of bright red paper finally stood there on their own was immense.

While I tried to comprehend the wave of emotions sweeping through me as I stood next to that newly-born artwork, I had no idea this pile of paper was going to run my life for the next two weeks…

‘PaperBridge’ was commissioned by Lakes Culture with support from Arts Council England

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