The Art of Recycling

I recently had the pleasant though difficult task of judging the Heritage category at the Three Counties Open Art Exhibition administered by Keele University at the Burslem School of Art.  Heritage, of course, has many aspects, encompassing the built environment and remnants of the industrial past as well as less tangible manifestations.

The Exhibition features many such – from a museum interior, to images of Stoke-on-Trent’s steelworks and potbanks (Francis Proudlove), to the cultural heritage of football and pubs (Geoffrey Wynne), with their undeniable emotional resonance.  Any one of these would have been a worthy winner.  Upstairs in the Arthur Berry room is a concurrent exhibition, ‘Common Ground’ by Ian Mood, inspired by the artist’s close family history as well as Stoke-on-Trent’s urban landscape.The work chosen for the Heritage prize, after no small degree of agonising and with the help of sponsor Ford Green Hall’s Neil Dawson, was a small collage in the upstairs gallery, Rising.   Created by Stoke-on-Trent’s Sheena Kelly, it is a stitched collage in ‘mixed media’ depicting a smoking kiln, factory building and canal.  Fragments of text: ‘we love locally’, ‘in small batches’ etc. also suggest pottery production – a particularly artisanal industry.  The slightly naïve execution references Stoke-on-Trent’s industrial heritage, but also comprises a witty commentary on the current state of the city along with the global problem of waste production and disposal.

The term ‘mixed-media’ can hide a multitude – Rising is made of refuse, bits of old packaging.  One connotation is the waste of the pottery industry and its workers.  But there is a positive spin – not least in the title: just as rubbish is recycled into art, the industrial heritage buildings depicted here are being turned to new use.  Middleport Pottery, still successfully producing Burleigh ware, is currently hosting the Weeping Windows ceramic poppies installation.  This is expected to generate a significant influx of cultural tourism in Burslem and beyond.  Empty shops are hosting pop-up art events and all over the city heritage buildings are being turned to new uses.

Enquiry to a delighted Sheena revealed that much of the material was provided by a packet of Kettle chips.  In the service of research I purchased two packets myself – Sea Salt & Crushed Black Peppercorns and ‘Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’. These are marketed as proper posh crisps: ‘hand cooked’, ‘absolutely nothing artificial’ – their credentials to authenticity and the artisanal are loudly trumpeted.

A quick visit to the website reveals reassuring information on the company’s sustainability practices: ‘Sustainability comes first’, we are told; ‘our natural promise extends beyond the ingredients’.  The tone is mildly patronising, puns aside: ‘We’re chipping in to live in harmony with the environment around us . . . .   The truth is, we all need to care for the planet.‘  However, they sorrowfully admit, it has not yet been possible to find an environmentally friendly form of packaging which would protect ‘the quality and freshiness of our product all the way to your favorite chip bowl’.  Hence, at the moment, each packet bears what we might dub the mark of McCain, also incorporated in Rising: ‘Sorry, this package is not currently recyclable.’  I suspect the truth of the matter is that they haven’t been able to find an environmentally friendly form of packaging that would not impact negatively on the bottom line.  Kettle is not the only brand to feature in Rising: a bird (dove?) flying upwards across the middle ground is made of a San Pellegrino ‘Eco-lid’ – 100% recyclable, apparently, but pretty much redundant and serving rather to confirm the pretensions of this pricey Euro-pop.  (Parent company Nestle scandalously promoted powdered baby milk in developing countries back in the day.)

Kettle chips, in common with most successful brands, has been subject in its short history to multiple merger and takeovers.  At one point it shared a stable (Kellog’s) with its polar opposite in crisp terms, the reformed and apparently pre-masticated aberration of a potato snack that is Pringles – “once you pop you can’t stop”.  It is currently owned by Campbells Soup, whose flagship product spawned perhaps the most iconic food art of the twentieth century – Andy Warhol’s pop-art Campbell Soup Cans (1962, MoMA).Ironically, given the mass-produced subject and advertising by which Warhol was inspired, the medium here is painted canvas – a separate painting for each of the 32 flavors.

Rising, then, is part of a now rather august tradition commenting on consumer culture.  We are all aware of the gaps between rhetoric and reality generated by organisations in their marketing and PR.  Kelly has cleverly recycled this rubbish while speaking gently of the Potteries industrial past and its pain and looking optimistically to the future.

Masters of Art and Sport

‘Masters of Art and Sport’, currently showing at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, yokes together art and sport as part of Stoke’s European City of Sport 2016, with a nod to UK City of Culture 2021. This conjunction has an august heritage, as the Ancient Greeks, originators of the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus, believed in the capacity of sport to build moral character and celebrated its glories in their plastic and decorative arts.

greek-vaseThe exhibition features two disparate talents: Philadelphia born Paine Proffitt, who has adopted Stoke (and Port Vale FC) as his spiritual home, and Manchester artist Philippe Aird.

Aird, who was at one point taught by L. S. Lowry, speaks on camera of throwing off the shackles of ‘figuration’ in favour of a dynamic, performative abstraction – experiments in colour and texture – from which elements of the figurative may still emerge.


The central work was created with 2004 Olympic gold medallist, Darren Campell, for Manchester World Sport 08. It symbolises aspiration and success in the colours bronze, silver and gold, and the journey taken by both sportsman and artist in achieving their goals – in this case the technical challenge presented by Aird’s unusual chosen medium (resin and oils) applied to a dark canvas.

The exhibition of twenty numbered canvases also functions as a retrospective showcase for Aird, who died last year.




Proffitt’s work, which alludes to cubism and sometimes surrealism, here presents a nostalgic view of the Beautiful Game (though he also has a professional interest in baseball and ice hockey). Trained as an illustrator, Proffitt has recently been in considerable demand by football clubs nationally and is sold locally through the fantastic Barewall Gallery in Burslem.


These two artists may well divide taste – as did the Lowry-Berry exhibition last year. However, in this case there exists a link between Proffitt’s figurative nostalgia and Aird’s more challenging abstraction in the form of the short-lived Italian movement, Futurism (not featured in the exhibition). The Futurists celebrated not only the speed and violence of the machine age before WWI, but also human athleticism.

dynamism-of-soccer-playerHere Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 work ‘The Dynamism of a Soccer Player’ (MOMA) illustrates this stylistic bridge. The moving figure in its environment is translated into a collection of planes and geometric shapes – the cubism alluded to by Proffitt. At the same time, the dynamism, composition and near abstraction of this image, in which elements of the figurative remain discernible, echo Aird’s more organic neuron-like shapes.

Events such as City of Sport/Culture are required to reach beyond the customary consumer and to leave a legacy. A paying art exhibition does not necessarily do this, though here the organisers have recruited four Ambassadors of Art and Sport to spread the word. What it does do is to lead the viewer from a thoroughly accessible art form to a more intellectually challenging one. One can also discern a grander aspiration to re-establish the more comfortable relation between sport and high culture enjoyed by classical civilisation. Good luck!


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Trip to the pictures to see ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, based on the 2009 ‘mash-up’ novel by Seth Grahame-Smith – for those unfamiliar, this genre typically grafts horror onto a classic text.

Jane Austen, who famously declared two or three families in a small village the very thing to work on, would surely be spinning in her grave at the adulteration of her work, but the splicing of schlock onto a much-loved late-Romantic novel was surprisingly successful and at times almost seamless. In this society, the feminine accomplishments of embroidery and sketching are secondary to the martial arts – Japanese for the privileged aristocracy; Chinese for less fortunate gentlewomen. A nice point when Caroline Bingley enacts social exclusion by speaking in the high-status Japanese; Lizzie responds to the snub in kind, plucking The Art of War from a bookshelf and declaring in fluent Cantonese that if it has not been read in the original language it has not been read at all. The mash-up also allows crude physical expression of Lizzie’s seditious spirit, which in the original is confined largely to her rapier-like tongue. The zombie strand is not always so happily integrated – the division of zombie society by an aristocratic minority who lord it over the common undead was rather laboured.

Confusion (for viewers of a certain age) in that Lily James, who is spot on as Lizzie Bennett zombies or no zombies, bears more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth Garvie of the 1980 BBC TV adaptation. She is also fresh from her role as Natasha Rostova in the beautifully produced BBC serial War and Peace. To compound this confusion, her poor, plain friend Charlotte Lucas is played by Aisling Loftus (poor, plain cousin Sonya in War and Peace), while the famous lake scene, which elevated Colin Firth to sex-symbol status but is not part of Austen’s novel, is nicked from the 1995 BBC version.

The film raises a hornet’s nest of adaptation issues, but such is the cultural influence of the novel (and presumably the desire of those involved to appeal if at all possible to Austen acolytes as well as horror-lovers), that the spirit of the original can still be discerned through TV intertexts and in spite of the mash-up. It’s absolutely bonkers, but visually appealing and quite entertaining. Worth a fiver (cinema tickets seem to have got cheaper) if you have a free evening. On the other hand, you could also safely wait until it comes on the telly.

City of Culture?

You may have heard that Stoke is bidding to be the next ‘UK City of Culture’ (2021).  This accolade brings to the title-holder economic benefits of millions according to the 2014 Government consultation paper and has previously been bestowed on areas commonly considered cultural backwaters (Derry 2013, Hull 2017).  The very idea has met with derision in some quarters, but Stoke is in with a chance on two counts – it fulfils the implicit criteria of economic depression and social deprivation, as well as the stated requirement for ‘a high quality cultural programme that builds and expands on local strengths and reaches a wide variety of audiences, creating a demonstrable economic impact and a catalyst for regeneration as well as contributing to community cohesion and health and wellbeing’.  In recent years community-directed arts programmes such as Appetite, B-Arts and Live Age have burgeoned.  Stoke also hosts the very well regarded British Ceramics Biennial and now has its own ‘Hot Air’ Literary Festival.

There is a small but distinctive literary heritage, for those who care to look.  Stoke’s best-known literary son, Arnold Bennett, realised quite early in his career the potential of the Potteries for artistic representation and attempted to awaken his audience to the grimy glories of the industrial landscape:

They are mean and forbidding of aspect – sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country …. Yet be it said that romance is even here – the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations. Look down into the valley from this terrace-height where love is kindling, embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre in a glance, and it may be that you will suddenly comprehend the secret and superb significance of the vast Doing which goes forward below.

Today award-winning, Stoke-born author, Lisa Blower, nods to Bennett in her forthcoming novel Sitting Ducks, a story set squarely in post-industrial Stoke:  Watch this space.

Lost and Found (II) – Arthur Berry


On Wednesday 16th December, Ray Johnson led a cast of actors at the Stoke Film Theatre in a reading of a previously unpublished play by Arthur Berry “Whatever Happened to Phoebe Salt”. This drama, edited by Deborah McAndrew for the occasion, concerns the trials and tribulations of a local working-class girl who yearns for something beyond the confines of her class and sex. Discontent has prompted Phoebe to take employment as a showman’s assistant and to string along two lovers (the dull but faithful childhood sweetheart and a more exciting married man – the local butcher). Incorporated in this sometimes farcical tragi-comedy is a tale of incest worthy of the ancient Greeks (Berry typically winks towards the classical while taking his own demotic road). In the end Phoebe’s attempts to traduce her fate are apparently in vain as she suffers the consequence of playing the field and gets up the spout. Though not all the actors quite mastered the Potteries accent – a difficult one – they overcame the issue of staging (or lack of it). A row of seated speakers in mufti is not promising; in fact full advantage was taken of the limited movement the arrangement allowed to realise a dynamic comic performance made easier, no doubt, by Berry’s earthy lyricism.

Stoke Moon - A Berry 1994

“Stoke Moon” (1994) by Arthur Berry

The next evening “Jazz, Beer and Oatcakes” was on at the Potteries Museum in Hanley. This was again led by Ray Johnson and inspired by another ‘lost’ recording of Arthur Berry by Arthur Wood: “Obsessed by Oatcakes” (Radio Stoke, 1978). Oatcakes were indeed consumed, though the inevitable salad garnish was not, I would venture, quite in the spirit of a man so enamoured of stodge. Clips of Berry’s peerless voice were interspersed with film clips, readings and songs from jazz ensemble Fine and Dandy. A certain amount of audience participation was the order of the day and the pre-Christmas crowd quite willingly raised voices and glasses to the not-too-difficult refrain “Oatcakes! Oatcakes!” It was a jolly evening, another event to accompany the successful exhibition: “Lowry and Berry: Observers of Modern Life” – now extended until January 17th!

Art v. life



On a research trip to the Lowry Gallery in Salford, I had one of those slightly odd experiences where art and life intersect. The image above is Lowry’s uncomfortable and uncomfortably named The Cripples (1949). When challenged that he could not possibly have encountered so many people with disabilities, Lowry hauled his sceptical interlocutor round post-war Manchester to prove a point. Waiting for a delayed tram to Salford Quays I conversed with an unkempt man who explained that because he had been sectioned he got no dole. As I was making notes in the Gallery, a small group of people with physical disabilities and learning issues came in. Their carers evinced shock at the picture’s name, though the image which elicited the strongest response from one of the group was The Bedroom, Pendlebury (a dingy tribute to van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles). The degree to which Lowry mocked or empathised with his subjects generally is debateable and though this image shows scant evidence of the latter quality he did undoubtedly appreciate the impact of misfortune and trauma. What is clear, surely even to the sceptical, is that austerity Britain would provide him with plenteous subject matter today.

There are 25 Lowries currently hanging in the Lowry-Berry exhibition at the Potteries Museum. The Lowry in Salford holds a large permanent collection – both demonstrate that Lowry was not simply a painter of industrial landscapes populated with ‘matchstick men’.

Major local art exhibition and associated events

Lowry and Berry: Observers of Urban Life

In conjunction with the exhibition of paintings by L.S. Lowry and his local counterpart Arthur Berry – ‘Observers of Urban Life’ – at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Paul Houghton and Catherine Burgass are both involved in ‘Live Age Festival’ events.  Paul is running a creative writing workshop ‘Writing is Seeing’ and Catherine is talking with Ray Johnson on ‘Arthur Berry and the Poetics of Place’, both on Saturday 3rd October.  Attendance at either of these free events will also gain you free admission to the exhibition, which places these two significant twentieth-century painters of the industrial landscape side by side for the first time and is well worth seeing.  For further information and to book go to:!october-3-schedule/cgjf

Stoke Literary Festival

Here are Catherine Burgass and Ray Johnson presenting their talk on ‘Arthur Berry – People’s Poet’ at the second Hot Air Literary Festival (13th June):
Ray and Catherine discussed Berry’s painting, poetry and plays, all of which articulate strongly a sense of regional idenitity, via images, film clips and dramatic readings.  They also launched a new edition of Berry’s poetry collection Dandelions:
Catherine was particularly excited to meet Margaret Drabble – taught on this year’s feminism module From Rage to Page.  Interviewed by Sathnam Sanghera about her most recent novel The Pure Gold Baby, Drabble clearly believed that conditions for women had improved significantly since the 1960s.  Catherine was able to get her mother’s original 1960s paperbacks signed and let Dame Margaret know that the political issues dramatised in these second-wave feminist fictions still speak to women of today, if student response is anything to go by!

Stoke Literary Festival

Catherine Burgass is presenting an event with Professor Ray Johnson on local poet Arthur Berry at the second Stoke Literary Festival (13th June).  For details go to:
The Festival event sold out early on, but tickets to other events may still be available and Ray and Catherine will also be talking about Berry at a forthcoming major exhibition: ‘Lowry and Berry – Observers of Urban Life’ at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (details to follow).
      Catherine and Ray have been working on a reprint of Berry’s book of poems, Dandelions, which should be published in time for the Festival.  Catherine was introduced to the work of Arthur Berry by one of our final-year students, Sarah Probyn – thank you Sarah!
      On Saturday 6th Catherine is also delivering a paper at the annual Arnold Bennett Conference – Bennett Abroad.  Taking liberties with the conference theme, the paper considers Bennett’s representation of the Potteries as a ‘foreign’ country, with reference to Freud’s theory of the uncanny.  For details go to: