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Great North Passion art project taking shape for Easter

An extraordinary art project involving hundreds of artists and volunteers across the region is taking shape as David Whetstone finds out

Artist Patrick Murphy with the Ashington shipping container for The Great North Passion
Artist Patrick Murphy with the Ashington shipping container for The Great North Passion

A project involving shipping containers, the BBC and communities across the North East will come to fruition on Good Friday, making it memorable for more than hot cross buns.

The Great North Passion is part of the BBC’s mission to reflect the “nations and regions” (the North East is a region, Wales and Scotland are nations) and “diverse communities”.

It is also the launch event of The Cultural Spring, an Arts Council-funded initiative to encourage more participation in the arts by people living in 10 council wards across Sunderland and South Tyneside.

Similar campaigns are also focused on East Durham (East Durham Creates) and South East Northumberland (Bait) driven by the idea that everyone should have access to the arts because they can help to make communities happier and healthier.

That’s the dull background out of the way. The really exciting stuff is happening around those 12 shipping containers where volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are working with artists and musicians to transform them into mighty art installations.

At the launch event beside Souter Lighthouse in South Shields, Ross Millard and David ‘Jaff’ Craig of band The Futureheads were excited to be involved, but still didn’t know exactly what might emerge from their container project.

The musicians are working with the Town End Farm community in Sunderland on a container project they described as a “sound collage” on the theme of taking on burdens.

The idea of The Great North Passion is that each container represents one of the Stations of the Cross, significant points on Jesus’ walk to Calvary and crucifixion.

“The themes are pretty heavy,” noted Ross. Station five is the point at which Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to help Jesus carry the cross.

On the big day the 12 containers will be assembled in Bents Park, South Shields.

There, along with 38 other empty shipping containers, they will be arranged to form a giant cross and a contemporary retelling of the Passion story will take place, complete with music and dancing.

While The Cultural Spring is the BBC’s main North East partner, Bait is also involved with artist Patrick Murphy working with ex-miners and children’s centre users at Woodhorn, near Ashington.

Patrick, who comes from mining stock in Barnsley, said he was fascinated by the pastimes of men who spent long hours grafting underground. “They kept pigeons and whippets, creatures of seeming fragility.”

He said the theme of the Woodhorn container, representing station 10 of the Cross where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, was resilience and loss.

Working with his volunteers, he planned to install a long table made from reclaimed industrial wood in the container and have it etched with words of resilience and hope.

Many people across the region have been willingly sucked into The Great North Passion (that old slogan ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ might spring to mind).

They include opera singer Graeme Danby, composer Will Todd, artist Richard Broderick and photographers Julian Germain and Garry Hunter.

Bad luck if you haven’t got tickets to be in Bents Park and see events unfold. The cut off point for acquiring them was March 24.

The good news – there’s always good news at Easter – is that it will be shown live on BBC1 on April 18. Keep an eye on the TV schedules.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer