AN innovative collaboration between youth groups and artist Sarah Blood is putting Cowgate in the spotlight, as Tamzin Lewis hears.
HOW do you get young people involved in constructive activities aimed at benefiting the community? Artist Sarah Blood answered this by introducing flame-working, glass-melting and neon lighting to young people in Cowgate.
For the past eight months, the Newcastle artist has worked with groups of children and teenagers on a project exploring light.
In the final stages of the Cowgate Illuminations project, funded by Wunderbar Festival and Newcastle City Council, Sarah introduced young people to neon art which has crackled in contemporary art galleries since American artist Bruce Nauman popularised it as an artform in the 1970s and 80s.
It’s used by numerous artists including Carsten Höller, who exhibited his Neon Circle at Baltic, and Tracey Emin, whom Sarah has exhibited with in London.
Most recently Sarah showed a glorious 12ft neon angel beside its opposite, made of rusted steel, at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery.
Her latest project comes to a climax today with the switch on of a large neon star-burst installation attached to the exterior of Cowgate Centre. It’s a festive light-up but there is funding in place to look after and service the installation for five years.
Working with the YMCA youth forum, boys’ group and girls’ group, Sarah held initial workshops in St Peter’s Church, the community centre and at a drop-in on a street corner.
Sarah, who is 37, says: “I was interested in doing as many different workshops which incorporated light as possible. We started off with some broad and inclusive workshops. First of all we coated paper with chemicals and used the sun to create prints, a bit like making photographs.
“We also did workshops involving glow sticks, torches and long exposure photography to create light sculptures in the air.
“They were great and worked particularly well with the boys’ group who have a lot of energy. Taking them into a dark room, giving them glow sticks, switching the light off and saying ‘go’ was good. We got fantastic results.”
As the project progressed Sarah arranged flame workshops for members of the youth forum, using bench-mounted torches to melt glass.
“Quite a few members of the girls’ and boys’ groups turned up and wanted a go. So they all got to melt glass one at a time. It was about experiencing the material. They loved it, came back the next week and wanted to do more.”
Teenage members of the Youth Forum then started experimenting with neon, which Sarah has been perfecting in her own work since 2004.
She says: “I had always thought there would be an end piece which would be in Cowgate. The youth forum were most interested in working with neon so we knew it would be a neon piece.”
She adds: “The younger girls and boys also worked with electro- luminescence wire to create light art. It looks like neon as you can switch it on and it glows but it is safer for children to work with.”
The final piece was inspired by the children aged eight to 12 from the boys’ and girls’ groups, and older teenagers from the youth forum, who chose the final design.
Back in her studio in the Ouseburn Valley, Sarah shaped glass pieces for the installation, filled them with argon and neon and attached electrodes.
She describes the finished piece as a 6m x 3m organic star-burst. Made from 20 different sections over a four- week period, it will glow red and blue.
Sarah says: “The main challenge was to get the best out of the community. I wanted them to be involved and excited about the project.
“I also wanted to represent their ideas accurately. It is their piece and their legacy. I am excited that I have helped them create their own work.”
She adds: “Some people may say it is frivolous but hopefully it will help draw attention to Cowgate and create discussion and interest in the area.”
The new installation will be switched on at Cowgate Centre, Houghton Avenue, at 5.30pm today, www.facebook.com/ CowgateIlluminations