Exploring the River Dearne through art

Dan Jones’ multi-faceted sculptural seat

Dan Jones’ multi-faceted sculptural seat - Credit: Archant

Artists navigating the River Dearne find it floats their creative boats

Artists Hayley Youell, Dan Jones, Patrick Murphy and Louise Wright

Artists Hayley Youell, Dan Jones, Patrick Murphy and Louise Wright - Credit: Archant

Not so very long ago, if an artist had been challenged to paint the Dearne, the result would have been something akin to The Scream by Edvard Munch. It was, in other words, not a pretty picture.

As industry took over the Dearne Valley, the once buoyant fish population began to dwindle and, by the 20th century, the river was a lifeless chemical soup with barely a fin-flick of life from its origins in the Pennines through to the North Sea.

Now, however, it’s teeming with life again, thanks to years of dedicated cleaning and restocking, innovative flood alleviation works linking the river to new wetland havens and a connectivity project aimed at overcoming barriers to fish migration.

The latter is the brainchild of the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, a five-year Lottery-funded scheme running a range of environmental, heritage and community projects from 2014 until June this year.

Based at Elsecar Heritage Centre in Barnsley, the DVLP team’s latest venture is an artistic exploration of the River Dearne aimed at connecting local people with the waterway and encouraging them to tell their own stories.

They challenged a group of Barnsley creatives – sculptor Daniel Jones; artist, designer and curator Patrick Murphy; artist Louise Wright; and artist partnership Hayley Youell, James Lockey and Andy Seward – to explore the Dearne, engage with surrounding communities and express their thoughts, speculations and revelations via their chosen medium.

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Louise Wright, who has lived near the river for several years, worked with children from Wombwell Park Street Primary School to gather ideas for a mixed media textile mural, which will be gifted back to the school at a later date. Together, they identified animals through pond-dipping and bird-watching at RSPB Old Moor, ad enjoyed follow-up sessions in the classroom involving sketching and print work.

She also ran art workshops for families, generating highly personal responses from more than 100 people.

‘The Art of the Dearne project has given me the opportunity to explore the area in a different way, taking a closer look at the biodiversity of the river,’ she explained. ‘Working with the children has been extremely rewarding – it was so great to see their enthusiasm. One of the highlights for me was encouraging them to become young explorers.’

The children were particularly taken with a bittern, discovering that the wading bird had only recently started breeding in the area again after a long hiatus.

Hayley Youell, James Lockey and Andy Seward took a different route, exploring the river via a short film with an original soundtrack featuring sounds and stories of the Dearne.

They worked with acclaimed choral arranger Barry Coupe, the collected talent of Thurnscoe Male Harmonic Voice Choir and Barnsley poet and songwriter Ray Hearne.

‘We used music, film and sound to tell the story of the River Dearne and raise awareness of the river,’ said Hayley, who lives in the centre of Barnsley.

‘We gathered all sorts of media including drone footage, artistic responses and hydrophone recordings of the river flowing to create a film that shows the way the river has changed over time and how its story reflects the Dearne Valley itself.’

Sculptor Dan Jones, who works predominantly in stone, has lived in the Dearne Valley all his life, only leaving for a brief three-year stint studying fine art sculpture at Loughborough University.

His response to the DVLP challenge is a sculptural seat in Brookfields Park, Rotherham, which explores the changing biodiversity of the River Dearne and the industries that have relied on it or have been associated with it.

The piece depicts the effects that industrialisation has had on the river both physically and biologically, reflecting the flow of the watercourse while offering views of the river to one side and the wider Dearne landscape to the other.

The sculpture is broken down into three sections – pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial – and includes cast glass and ceramic elements developed through community workshops.

Artist Patrick Murphy took a very different approach, projecting a large-scale laser installation into the sky above Barnsley in an ephemeral but memorable piece called Neon River.

The beam, erupting into the sky from the town’s Digital Media Centre, could be seen for up to ten miles across Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster.

‘In Greek, neon means ‘new’ and the idea of creating a new look at the river really appealed to me,’ said Patrick. ‘Neon’s link to brightly-coloured signs and lights also suggested an ideal metaphor for signposting the river.

‘When planning this art intervention, I discovered that the DMC roof balcony offered the best position for the light, providing an uninterrupted projection from the town centre above the natural course of the River Dearne. This created a visual river in the sky to highlight the real river’s position and importance to the town.’

To find out more about the current raft of projects being steered by the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, visit discoverdearne.org.uk.