Bears of Sheffield: Artist Jo Peel's bear comes out of hibernation for big city sculpture trail!

Sheffield artist Jo Peel creates work on walls in the city and around the world – but it was a completely new experience for her to paint a bear.

Friday, 30th July 2021, 12:43 pm
Sheffield BID Manager Diane Jarvis, Sheffield-based artist Jo Peel who painted the bear and Director at The Children’s Hospital Charity David Vernon-Edwards
Sheffield BID Manager Diane Jarvis, Sheffield-based artist Jo Peel who painted the bear and Director at The Children’s Hospital Charity David Vernon-Edwards

Jo, who comes from Sharrow, was actually the first artist to create a design for the Bears of Sheffield sculpture trail around the city that is raising money for Sheffield Children’s Hospital.

In total, 60 big bears have been decorated by artists, with firms and organisations sponsoring them, and 100 little bears have been bought by schools, nurseries and youth groups, who created and painted their own designs.

They go on show until September 29, then they gather together for the last time before the large bears are auctioned off in mid-October. The small ones are kept by their owners.

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Find the full details of the trail and the stories behind all the bears at bearsofsheffield.com

Jo said: “I painted it two years ago. Mine was the first bear to be painted – it was meant to launch the campaign and then things happened.

"It is linked to what all my work is about, exploring cities. The point of the bears is to get people outside and looking at their environment differently.

“My bear shows city infrastructure and how cities are built and ways of looking at things differently.

Jo Peel, in the cherry picker, at work on her new mural on Howard Street in Sheffield city centre

"The point of the campaign is to raise money for the cancer and leukaemia ward for the Children’s Hospital Charity. It’s a really great thing to be involved with.”

Doug was supposed to be unveiled when the Bears of Sheffield campaign was set to be launched but he had to go into storage when the pandemic struck and the whole project was put on hold until this year.

Jo described how she created the design, which features cranes and buildings being demolished and trees growing through buildings, saying it’s impossible to design a 3D rounded figure on a piece of paper.

“When I approached it, the bear sculpture already had this character.

Jo Peel's Herd of Sheffield elephant on display outside Persistence Works in Sheffield

“I started by putting a yellow circle on his heart. I used my images like tattoos and gave him a ‘face without a face’ and I used his shape, rather than going abstract. I wanted to give him a bit of character.

“I drew straight on to the bear and there were certain elements that I mapped out to get the composition, then I painted on top. It builds out from there.”

Jo said it was a similar process to how she creates her murals – she comes up with an idea for the space that she maps out and then adapts it more freely to what she finds when she actually comes to work on the painting.

She has really enjoyed seeing the response to Doug on social media: “It’s been amazing. One of the nice things about it is the public gives it this new lease of life. People have been snapping photos and saying how much they love it.”

Jo Peel, centre, with fellow artists Fem Sorcell, left, and Radha Ferris, right, in front of her Alma Street mural

Doug is on show at Park Hill Flats. Jo said: “I’ve drawn the buildings a lot and I’ve included them in my artwork.”

She last saw Doug when all the bears went on show together at the event launch before they were put in place on the trail all around the city, so the first time she saw him in place was when she posed for our photographer.

In contrast, her elephant for the Herd of Sheffield went on show outside the Yorkshire Artspace Persistence Works on Brown Street in the city centre. “I saw him every day on my way into work,” she said.

Jo passes more of her work on her way into the studio. She created a living wall mural on the building in collaboration with Nigel Dunnett, professor of planting design and urban horticulture at the University of Sheffield, which has plants growing out of it.

The idea was to help combat pollution – something that was really brought home when they returned after a year to trim the plants and found they were covered in a layer of black muck.

Jo said the environment is something she explores in her work, both in the way that nature can take back areas that fall into disuse, as well as practical measures such as leaving parts of mural walls bare so that insects can live in them or incorporating plants into her work.

Jo Peel at work in her studio in Sheffield in 2015, when she had an exhibition in the Millennium Gallery, with a picture of Park Hill in the foreground

Jo said at the moment she is working on a series of pieces about Japan. “I’ve been working on it for the last five years. It’s something I keep coming back to and I’m doing it now because the Olympics is in Japan.

“There’s always lots of projects running at the same time. I’ve got a couple of murals planned but I’ve been cautious of planning anything because of everything that’s happened.

“I’m planning an exhibition but I’m waiting until people can definitely turn up to see it.”

Jo has been working as an artist for around 15 years and has lived in London and Cornwall before returning home. Shortly after she came back, the Millennium Gallery had a show of Jo’s work exploring similarities between the twin steel cities of Sheffield and Pittsburgh in 2015.

Her instantly recognisable work adorns spaces all around the city.

As well as painting indoors and outside, she creates sculptures and animations. One recent animation, Gravity, which was inspired by lockdown, completely took over Jo’s studio and her life for weeks. You can see it on her website, www.jopeel.com

Jo has a personal reason to support The Children’s Hospital Charity. She said: “My sister was in the hospital for quite a long time when she was younger. I do remember the murals on the walls as a kid, basically sitting around staring at walls because there’s nothing else to do.

“Wards that are well designed and make you feel better is a massive deal. You could be there for six months – it’s where you live and it’s important the space feels like it’s got love in it and just generally putting nature back into the environment.

"It’s a small thing but it’s part of something but it’s part of something that makes people feel better in their environment. They feel better about themselves and that’s good for everyone’s health.”

Cheryl Davidson, project manager for the Bears of Sheffield, said: “Jo was the first artist to design, paint and unveil a Bear of Sheffield and I think we can agree that, with Doug, she has made quite a paw print!

“As well as supporting the trail this summer, Jo also very kindly painted a Herd of Sheffield elephant, which raised a huge £6,600 for Sheffield Children’s Hospital at auction.

“Jo’s distinctive cityscape designs can also be found in the courtyard of the hospital, having recently worked with our charity arts programme Artfelt to create a more welcoming environment for patients and their families.

“On behalf of everyone in the Charity Team, thank you Jo for all you have done and continue to do.”

Jo Peel artwork on display in John Lewis by @zoes_events_in_store
Artist Jo Peel with her Bear Doug who is outside Park Hill Flats