Star Interview: Artist's steely determination keeps dream of giant sculpture overlooking Sheffield alive

'Because a project like this takes a long time to put together, you can understand why the public get frustrated,' says artist Steve Mehdi, explaining why his dream of installing a monumental 100ft sculpture, The Steel Man, on a steep hillside towering over the M1 and Meadowhall is very much alive after almost a decade's hard slog.

Thursday, 19th October 2017, 6:11 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 2:09 am
Martha McGuinn, Steve Mehdi and Jane Hughes, pictured, by a model of The Steel Man. Picture: Marie Caley

"Joe Public just wants to see progress, because they’re fed up. Now the chimneys are being built, they’re saying ‘Right, is this still happening?’"

The four surreal chimney stacks to which Steve refers are the work of another sculptor, Alex Chinneck, and will form a trail along the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal, starting near the motorway viaduct. A project led by Sheffield Council and largely funded by energy company Eon, these are the long-awaited 'official' replacement for the demolished Tinsley cooling towers.

Steve Mehdi and Jane Hughes

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Steve originally offered his Steel Man to the city council but was turned down and so, with the support of his partner Jane Hughes, decided to realise his ambition himself. He has a site for the artwork - a large plot off Meadowhall Road formerly used for landfill, made available for free on a 100-year lease - and the backing of architects, engineers, both of Sheffield's universities and major companies who have donated time, materials and money.

Planning permission for the £4 million sculpture is in place from Rotherham Council - the site is just outside the Sheffield boundary - and proposals are about to be submitted for a visitor centre, paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will emphasise the project's educational aims with a message about the region's industrial heritage.

A Heart of Steel linked to the scheme is on display outside Rotherham Minster and work is under way on building another one that will sit inside the man. People, many of whom had relatives who worked in steel manufacturing, have been paying £20 each to have names inscribed on the new heart, which is being made from inconel superalloy by Doncasters Bramah in Halfway and will soon be exhibited at Meadowhall.

"It will stay in Meadowhall until the man's built. Then there will be a procession up to the hill and it will be craned in," says Steve at the project's small office on the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Catcliffe.

How The Steel Man will look

He agrees the man - a stainless steel figure that will sit casually on top of a tall plinth doubling as an observation tower - is a very different proposition to the chimneys, but says he was intrigued when Chinneck's designs emerged last month.

"When you first see it you think 'I'm not sure about that', but when you look into it, it's a brilliant concept. If you're up on the hill and you've got the man, and the centre, your visitors can go and see the chimneys as well in the Don Valley, and vice versa. It's not competition, it's complementary."

However, an artist from Sheffield or Rotherham could easily have been found to design the demolished Tinsley Towers' successor, Steve argues.

"I've always felt that local public art should be generated locally. I don't think you need to think about an Anish Kapoor, or an Antony Gormley, and think that in itself is going to generate interest and ultimately income. There are plenty of creative people locally who could have come up with a concept."

An illustrative masterplan showing how the Steel Man site would be laid out - the car park and visitor centre are on the right, with a trail leading to the sculpture, on the far left.

Steve, 61, took an indirect route to the art world. He grew up in local authority care in Gloucestershire, and after reaching adulthood got married, moved to Sheffield and became a labourer in the steel industry, painting in his spare time. When his marriage hit difficulties he moved to New York and made a lot of money renovating apartments, but later returned to Sheffield and went bankrupt following a series of business ventures.

He started doing up properties again, and met Jane, an interior designer, in 2005. The pair live in Grindleford and used to run an art gallery on Ecclesall Road. The Steel Man first appeared in much smaller form when Steve started making sculptures from brown sticky tape used for framing pictures.

The pair are fully committed to seeing the scheme through, but didn't foresee it spanning a decade.

"Had we realised we'd be working on it for so many years we might have thought twice," says Jane. "Naivety is a brilliant driving force in lots of ways. The support we've had has been so strong and evident. You've just got to give it your best shot."

An artist's impression of the Steel Man interpretation hub

Steve pulls out the plans for the visitor centre, a sizeable building formed from metal panels. Surrounding the centre, plans indicate a park-like outdoor environment with trees and space to leave cars and coaches. A trail will guide visitors through the centre and up to the Steel Man.

Jane has been drawing up the proposals with project manager Martha McGuinn, who is part of an expanded team alongside learning officer Suzy Dix. The lottery fund approved £106,000 to cover development costs, and a second application will be made for a further £850,000.

Talks are at an advanced stage with an international steel company poised to become a major partner in building the sculpture, and Sheffield Council's leader Julie Dore has written a letter of support to the team. A Hallam University study claimed the landmark could bring an extra £9 million into the region every year.

So can Steve and Jane say it'll definitely happen?

"We'd love to say yes but you never know what's going to happen in the wider world, in politics - those are the unknown banana skins that you can't predict," says Jane.

Steve concurs, citing Brexit as an example. "It turned off EU funding. That was an avenue no longer available that all these other projects had benefited from."

Steve Mehdi and Jane Hughes

Overcoming the doubters is just part of the job. The Angel of the North in Gateshead and the Kelpies in Scotland encountered opposition and even the Statue of Liberty was mired in 'jeopardy and years of disinterest', says Steve.

Construction of The Steel Man is pencilled in to start next Spring, with a projected completion date of late 2019.

Until then Steve and Jane will continue to spend most of their waking hours thinking about the huge undertaking.

"We haven't had a holiday for years," says Jane.

"A lot of people ask 'What are you going to do when it's built?' The answer is nothing," says Steve. "If we were 20 years younger, we'd be looking to benefit from the publicity and kudos, but we just want to make this work properly."

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Superman studio threat led to name change

Steve Mehdi was forced to change the name of The Steel Man from the Yorkshire Man of Steel following an intervention by entertainment giant Warner Brothers - the owner of the rights to Superman and his 'Man of Steel' nickname.

"It came out of the blue. This email came from a man at Warner Brothers, and I looked at it and thought 'I can't believe this'. I thought it was a spoof. But it was genuine. He was nice and charming, but quite insistent."

A Warner Brothers representative visited the AMP and raised the prospect of legal proceedings.

"They said 'I don't suppose you want to go to court on this, all we're saying is if you can change the name, it'll be better for everyone'. Initially they even suggested joining forces with us. They said if we put DC Comics on all our products - mugs, T-shirts - we'll consider letting you use it. Why would we do that?"

He said calling the sculpture The Steel Man had given it 'a clearer identity'.

How The Steel Man will look
An illustrative masterplan showing how the Steel Man site would be laid out - the car park and visitor centre are on the right, with a trail leading to the sculpture, on the far left.
An artist's impression of the Steel Man interpretation hub