It is exactly six years ago since a little-known Sheffield sculptor watched in amazement as a cloud of public dismay rose in the dust and rubble as Tinsley’s ‘landmark’ cooling towers tumbled and thought: if they want something truly iconic to stand at the region’s gateway, I have just the thing.
Steve Mehdi had a gallery on Ecclesall Road and the exhibit that made people stand and stare was no more than a foot tall. Undoubtedly, the bronze named The Steel Man had gravitas.
“People kept saying; That could be the next Angel Of The North. So I took the idea to Paul Scriven, then leader of Sheffield City Council,” says Steve. “Sadly the council didn’t see my vision and felt any creation to mark a gateway to the region should be that of a celebrity name.”
Giving up is not in Steve’s nature, however; he discovered that EON, owners of the towers and their site, had £500,000 allocated for art - but that no creative structure would stand on the site of the towers.
Via Google Maps, he found a plot of unusable landfill wasteland nearby
off Meadowhall Road, Kimberworth, close to Junction 34 of the M1, and persuaded its owners, FCC Environment, to donate it for free and landscape the area to fulfil its corporate responsibility - if he could get his project off the ground.
“I believe choosing the right piece is more important than choosing the right person and felt I had something that resonated with people,” he says, explaining his perseverance.
Rotherham Council’s strategical director for the town, Karl Battersby, felt the same way and urged for him to scale up the statue. But how to fund an iconic statue 50 per cent bigger than Antony Gormley’s famed Angel of The North in Gateshead? Steve needed £3.5 million and free labour.
Steve had a plan; himself a former labourer at city firm Spear and Jackson in the Eighties, he had created his little statue to symbolise the generations of men and women who worked in factories and coal mines. He turned to the very industries and entrepreneurs forging the Sheffield City Region’s present and future.
Sheffield’ Axis Architecture turned Steve’s vision into a workable design and drew up free plans and schematics which were passed by Rotherham Council planners in August 2012. Steve felt it was imperative that the statue was locally made - and discovered all the skills and materials were on the doorstep. So he went knocking on the doors.
Tata Steel pledged a generous donation of steel, Sheffield Hallam University scanned the original sculpture to enable John Halfpenny, composite manager at the AMRC, to machine a working model - and as word spread among excited entrepreneurs, industrialists and professionals, the phone starting ringing.
Vicky Gribben, a chartered accountant with Dow Schofield Watts, pulled together the business strategy and We Are Branding, a Sheffield design consultancy, have created the public face of the Yorkshire Man of Steel, including a website, stationery and brochures..
“I have been overwhelmed by the level of support from Rotherham Council and the private sector,” says Steve. “The Man of Steel has touched a cord. These companies recognise its potential to attract more successful businesses to the area.
“The sculpture will honour the past and a new era of specialised manufacturing, and its precisely these skills which will define The Yorkshire Man of Steel in the future.”
Thanks to the Heart Of Steel, a recently launched fundraiser for the statue,
the public can now own a small part of it. For a £20 donation they can add their name to what will be a 2.5 tonne heart sculpture which will sit inside the final version. Up to 150,000 names will eventually cover the heart and already £8,000 has been pledged.
Now funds are half-way there. When the rest of the money is raised, hopefully by the end of 2014, work can start. The figure will be made from stainless steel, recognising Harry Brearley’s invention over 100 years ago. It will sit on a coal-black column, in homage to the region’s coal industry and at 30 metres tall will be visible to 100,000 vehicles a day travelling on the M1 across the Tinsley Viaduct with a potential annual audience of several million.
A visitor centre will stand beside it, housing exhibitions charting the history of the region’s coal and steel industries and their transition to world-leading new engineering technology, The entire scheme will operate as a charitable trust, ploughing any profits into the local community.
It will take a year to create and, says Steve Mehdi will not only be an icon - “it will be a beacon for the new expertise springing up here and a testament to the forward-thinking visionaries who backed it.”
For more information, go to www.yorkshiremanofsteel.com