Artist Valerie Laws wants credit for sheep poetry

A WRITER from the North East who turned a flock of sheep into a media sensation was left baa-king mad when she saw the same idea being promoted elsewhere.

Poet Valerie Laws with her sheep
Poet Valerie Laws with her sheep

A WRITER from the North East who turned a flock of sheep into a media sensation was left baa-king mad when she saw the same idea being promoted elsewhere.

Valerie Laws won a £2,000 Arts Council grant in 2002 to create Quantum Sheep, a project in which 15 of the animals were each sprayed with one word of a short poem or haiku.

The idea was that the words would form a meaningful haiku – or “haik-ewe” as Valerie called it – however they were viewed on the backs of the grazing sheep.

A media call featuring Valerie and the sheep attracted not just local newspapers but TV crews. Valerie was even interviewed live on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But the Whitley Bay writer was moved to contact the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) at West Bretton, near Wakefield, after it appeared to be promoting a similar creation called Write to Roam by artist Alison Cooper.

A programme assistant at YSP said neither the park nor the artist had been aware of Valerie’s work.

A flyer for the venue, picked up in Leeds, had a photograph of sheep with words painted on them.

Accompanying text said the YSP’s Country Park would be animated by the sheep “sprayed with individual words inspired by research around the heritage and ancient grazing land of the Bretton Estate”.

It added: “As the sheep move, lie and graze they create chance groupings of words, both sensible and absurd. Visitors are encouraged to explore the landscape taking inspiration and humour from the constantly evolving formation of phrases, sentences and interactions.”

A previous manifestation of the Cooper sheep artwork was on a farm at Cawthorne, near Barnsley, last summer, which also attracted local media attention.

Yesterday Valerie said of the artist: “It appears she has been commissioned to do a project which is almost identical to mine, although not as skilled.

“She hasn’t added any new twist or development to it.

“Ever since Quantum Sheep, people have said to me, ‘Are you the sheep woman?’ It makes me sound like a very strange kind of superhero but it is very much my calling card.

“I’m a freelance practitioner and whenever I’m pitching for work I always mention it because it’s something most people have heard of. I feel I have to assert my rights as the originator of the idea.”

Valerie said she got the idea for her original project at Hadrian’s Wall when looking down on sheep milling about. She had used it to express her interest in quantum theory, attained while studying for an Open University degree in theoretical physics and maths.

Before spraying a small flock of sheep at Whitehouse Farm, near Morpeth – receiving a lot of bruises in the process – she had devised a short poem whose words would convey meaning in any order.

She said: “I remember we put out a press release thinking the local paper might be interested but all these TV crews turned up and the sheep were shown all around the world.”

Valerie said the project has been referenced many times since.

Meanwhile, she has continued her interest in science-themed poetry installations.

She appeared at London’s Royal Festival Hall to demonstrate a “quantum haiku” printed on beach balls and is planning a new version, on floating pond decorations, in her current role as writer-in-residence at Dilston Physic Garden, Corbridge.

In an email to YSP she asked for some form of acknowledgement of her work, suggesting: “The masses of publicity given to my project and the striking similarity of Cooper’s make it seem likely she got the idea from me either consciously or subconsciously.”

A reply from YSP programme assistant Harriet Cooper stated: “Neither ourselves nor Alison were previously aware of Quantum Sheep 2002. I will discuss this with the rest of the curatorial team next week when staff have returned from the Easter break and will be in touch.”

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