Eric Block 

Sarah Staton on ‘Alphonso’

On the 18 September a striking new sculpture by artist Sarah Staton will be unveiled in Newton Leys. The most recent addition to Milton Keynes’ long standing dedication to public art, the three-sided folly, designed to be gathered under and played around, ‘Alphonso’ is her latest piece of work to explore the importance of interaction between art piece and onlookers. I had the opportunity to speak to Sarah to learn more.

You have created an amazing three-sided structure, entitled Alphonso, located in Milton Keynes, can you tell me what inspired this work and whether it is built around one central theme?

Thank you! For a decade I regularly travelled on a train that passes an extraordinary three-sided building sitting in fields not so far from the train line. I discovered that this was a reformation structure, Rushton Lodge, imagined as a protestation of faith by Thomas Tresham while he was imprisoned for being catholic. He built this amazing structure with a numeric relation to the Holy Trinity – a subversive piece of architecture that became the point of departure for Alphonso’s triangularity.  ‘Alphonso’ is a contemporary folly that connects to Ruston Lodge numerically – triangular in plan, three-sided structure – a flat iron building, a folly that shape shifts as you walk around it. Historically follies were created by the aristocracy as decorative whims and devices to interrupt landscape, they were often there to be gazed at. I like the idea of people gathering around ‘Alphonso’ to look out at the natural environment. 

As to a theme, the central theme of the public sculpture that I make is sociability, sculpture that can be sat in, on or under, public art that the public can make some use of!

Does this folly build on any other previous work that you have completed in the past?

Prior to completing ‘Alphonso’, I was commissioned to produce a sculpture for University of Bristol, ‘Edith and Hans’, this took the form of a room with no roof built from reclaim and bespoke brick within a meadow at the student halls area, Stoke Bishop. ‘Edith and Hans’ is structure of two L shaped low walls that drop down to create two L shaped seats, and it there in the meadow to encourage loitering and lingering and long late nights! The interior bench is orientated towards afternoon sun, in the summer, the brick retains the suns heat, which then warms the bodies of those that might come by after sunset. I know it’s working in this respect, because a dearest friend sent photographic evidence of his nephew with friends all blurry eyed at dawn, languishing all over the sculpture!

What particularly fascinated you about the area and environment?

The woods at Newton Leys are pretty and filled with birds, it’s great to see the scars of earlier industrial activity re wilding. This area that ‘Alphonso’ occupies was brownfield land, now a generous lake fills the void in the landscape that was created previously through clay extraction, a former brick works stood here until the 1940s. Many of the workers came from Southern Italy, and this is how the work came to be called ‘Alphonso’. When you start the process of creating a public sculpture, the physical environment is one of the starting points, the social histories also begin to echo and inform the process.

What inspired you to work with traditional brick and tile producers?

Moving building materials long distance is resource heavy, so I looked for a responsible supplier reasonably close and found HG Matthews in Amersham. The tiles come from Blackburn, and to the best of my knowledge the producers Darwen Terracotta are the only producer in the country to make large scale architectural tile that will stand the test of time. I went to both places and worked within their production facilities. Accessing this kind of specialist knowhow is a great privilege and opportunity for an artist. Cutting slips and hand painting the tiles was very enjoyable!

How did you prepare for this? How has the process of creating this artwork been for you?

Site visits, conversations and drawing are the way I work towards making this kind of commission. I draw again and again, using analogue methods and once I have something working on paper, I will get going on making models. Residents at the site formed a steering group and we had an ongoing dialogue that progressed the design.

What effect do you think this will have on the community and vis versa?

Until the people of Newton Leys interact with the sculpture it’s really just an assemblage of brick and tile. I hope that the residents might make a habit of visiting ‘Alphonso’, climbing the mound, up the spiralling path which gives a changing viewpoint of the work making the sculpture shape shift; that they may rest on the bench enjoying the lake. I hope that children may run through the archway and around the sculpture in dizzying circles, brushing hands over the textures, rough on the brick and smooth on the tile. And that teenagers might hang out there late into the night and perhaps find a place to shelter from drizzle under the archway when everyone else is asleep. The sculpture is inert, however in our screen-based lives, I hope that an object in landscape might still have capacity to become something of a social anchor, a meeting place and in that way create a positive relationship with the community who have help me create it. 

Milton Keynes Council and Sarah Staton will open the folly on the 18 September at Little Callow Mound, Willow Lake, Newton Leys, Bucks.

On the 15 September, Sarah Staton will hold a Studio Open Day at her studio, located at 16 Davies Mews, Mayfair London W1K 3DS.

To learn more about Sarah Staton’s work, and ‘Alphonso’ please click here.

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