“NO artist worth sixpence a day would live in Sheffield” – so wrote John Ruskin in the late 19th century.
The critic, who would go on to become one of the city’s greatest philanthropists, believed the smog here choked any possible creativity.
The picture, it seems, in 2011 is very different.
As this year’s Great Sheffield Art Show officially kicks off next week at the Octagon Centre, organisers are promising the biggest, best and, most unusual exhibition in its 24 year history.
And, while more than 600 artists from as far afield as Southampton will be displaying exactly 1,386 pieces of work at what is the north’s biggest amateur show, it is the scores of creative-types from our very own region who are arguably among the most exciting prospects.
“We seem to say this every year,” says chairman Mike Fearne, who has been at the helm since 2000. “But the quality really does seem to have gone up yet again.
“We’ve had plenty of people display here in the past who have gone on to become professional artists, such as Trevor Neal – or Caroline Appleyard, who was a teacher until she realised, after a successful exhibition, that she could make something of a living from painting.
“But this year seems to be a particularly exciting crop – and especially so from the local entrants.”
Among that crop are paintings painted from Henderson’s Relish, sculptures sculpted from Sheffield street rubbish and – deep breath, fellas – a 21-year-old Doncaster lass displaying naked self portraits.
There’s also a farmer from Chesterfield who took to sculpting in a moment of mid-life boredom, and a retired teacher who paints fantasy Sheffield neighbourhoods where, for example, the Town Hall might be next door to the demolished Co-Op building in Ecclesall Road.
Eclectic, says Mike, is perhaps the right word.
“To be honest,” whispers photographer Ian Spooner, of Cross House Road, Grenoside, Sheffield, the man behind those two Henderson’s paintings, “I can’t stand the stuff. I shouldn’t really say that should I but it’s true.”
As such, instead of pouring Yorkshire’s best secret on to, for example, a pork pie, he has poured it on to a palette and painted two mini masterpieces with it – one of a bottle itself, one of the company’s factory in Leavygreave Road.
“I was looking for something iconically Sheffield to paint, and obviously Henderson’s leapt out at me,” explains the 54-year-old, who has had other work displayed at the show in previous years.
“I thought it would be a nice little twist if I actually used the relish instead of my usual watercolours.
“I wasn’t sure how it would work out but I’m pretty pleased with the results, and I was really happy when it impressed the judging panel enough to be included in the show.”
Ah, that judging panel, then?
The maker or breaker of so many artists.
Almost 2,000 pieces are submitted some years so a team of city critics and experts will spend three days whittling them down to the required amount.
Mike, 70, of Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall, Sheffield, again: “It can be incredibly hard actually because, like I say, there’s a lot of quality.
“And while it’s lovely to see the excitement when people have been picked, it can be hard telling others their work hasn’t made it – but I suppose that competition helps drive standards up.
“Some we can rule out easily because the one thing we do insist on is they have to be presented professionally. We had one chap who, for years, just entered his work as scraps of paper to try and, I suppose, be anti-establishment but it wouldn’t fit in with what the show is about.
“Other than that we just try to pick what we think will be appreciated by people, and what will be received well.”
One of those which should be received well is the work of Oonagh Bagley. The 21-year-old Birmingham University fine art graduate, of Bawtry, has got four oil painted nudes going on show.
The unusual bit? They’re all of herself.
“I just wanted to experiment a little,” she says. “I was feeling confident and no-one else would pose for me so I thought I would give it a go myself. It’s just a bit of fun, although obviously I hope people like it, and see the value in it.
“It’s quite seductive I think but not too out there, and, to be honest, I really enjoyed doing it.”
Her family will be offering their support on the first night.
“They’re proud of me,” she says. “I don’t think they’re worried I’m naked – it’s just a painting. They give me so much support I couldn’t really do it without them.”
Family is important too to Donna Bailey.
She’s the Carlton-in-Lindrick mum-of-three who makes sculptures from street rubbish.
But, although her children may moan she’s embarrassing them when they see her scrambling in the Fargate gutter for washers, bottle tops, loose change and cans, she says it’s worth it to create her pro-recycling sculptures.
They include an 11 ft alligator made from dumped tyres, an owl made from nuts, bolts and screws, and a homeless man made of cardboard and screws.
“They’re a bit different,” says 40-year-old Donna, a care worker. “But I’m hoping that’s what will make them stand out because I know the other work at the show will be of such a high standard.”
Indeed it will.
About £30,000 worth of sales are now made over the three day festival – with any profit made by the volunteer organising committee going to good causes across Sheffield.
Whatever, Ruskin said in the 1800s, it seems today at least, there are a lot of great artists living in Sheffield, and plenty more wanting to display here.
The Great Art Show runs from July 8-10 at The Octagon, Western Bank. Friday 10am - 9pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am - 6pm. Tickets £4.50. See www.gsas.co.uk
‘Sorry, we’ve got the student ganes to sort’ - How it started
IT was 1987 when art lover Isobel Blincow, pictured left, approached Sheffield City Council with the idea of putting on a huge amateur exhibition for artists from across the north.
The response was simple – thanks but no thanks.
With preparations for the World Student Games already under way, officials told her they already had too much on.
So Isobel decided to do it without them.
“She put a business proposal together, applied for a £5,000 loan from the bank and, I think to her amazement, they supported her,” says Mike Fearne, the chairman who took over in 2000.
“The first show in 1988 was such a success, and so much commission was made from sales, the loan was paid off and the show has been in the black ever since.”
All workers are volunteers and the event is not for profit, meaning any money made - after a small reserve is put aside - is donated to local good causes.
Various art groups and Sheffield Children’s Hospital have all received donations.
The painter who turned professional
WHEN Phil Lockwood, left, first displayed at The Great Sheffield Art Show, he was a retired woodwork teacher showing off a hobby.
Now his paintings regularly sell for hundreds, and this year he will have one of the event’s 20 perimeter stands where professional artists display and offer advice.
His works are surreal paintings of real places in unreal neighbourhoods - created to order.
The 69-year-old, of Banner Cross Road, Ecclesall, Sheffield, first created the Sheffield which had been prominent in his life in a few imaginary streets.
Now he is getting commissions from as far afield as London.