Feeling form, making a movement

How can we describe or measure a sculptural experience? Sculpture in its essential form is undeniably present in the world, yet it resists being articulated through verbal, written or numerical language. At the beginning of Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI), I found the term ‘material literacy’ a useful phrase to try to explain the unique experience of learning with sculpture. Visual literacy is well known within educational debates and demonstrates how people make meaning through images, and how communication takes form outside of words. Material literacy, however, is not a familiar concept. I first came across the term in an article written by academic Anne-Sophie Lehman, who uses it as a framework to construct a history of object-based learning in Europe.1 Similar ideas have been explored, notably in Peter Dormer’s exploration of ‘craft knowledge’ in his 1994 book The Art of the Maker: Skill and its Meaning in Art, Craft and Design. He claimed that the difficulty of describing the value of craft knowledge meant that it was side-lined in the school curriculum. Our understanding of craft knowledge, according to Dormer, ‘resides not in language, but in the physical processes involving the physical handling of the medium’.2 Barbara Hepworth also talked about the idea of ‘touch’ or haptic learning in a British Pathé film from 1972:

‘I think every sculpture must be touched… it’s part of the way you make it and it is really our first sensibility, is the sense of feeling. It is the very first one we have when we are born… With a sculpture you must walk around it, bend towards it, touch it, walk away from it’.3

Hepworth clearly prizes this innate human sensibility to touch, something she developed throughout her life and career, but it is not necessarily valued in today’s formal education systems. Material literacy rarely appears in books and articles, and is absent in curricula, despite the fact that physical interaction with materials happens everywhere throughout our lives: scooping out clay from the ground, forming and firing it into bricks to build shelter; kneading dough to make bread; or taking a bucket and spade to the beach to build a sandcastle.

Yorkshire Sculpture International working with students from Wakefield College

During the Yorkshire Sculpture International festival there were over 47,000 instances of material literacy. 47,000 moments when people built, cast, moulded, stitched, poured, constructed, folded, rolled, and carved. This happened in school classrooms, community centres and university campuses across Leeds and Wakefield, many times out of sight of the sixteen staff members from across the four galleries and the thirty-nine artists facilitating workshops. In an attempt to explore what material literacy has been and can be, I asked if some of these people would like to contribute to this publication, attempting to gain a glimpse into moments that I would otherwise have missed. This exercise does not seek to replicate evaluation methods but provide an opportunity to complicate these assumed practices, aiming to both challenge and crystalise our understanding of learning with sculpture.

It is a bold statement to create an object and present it to the world. It requires access to materials and the self-confidence to assert ownership over a material, shape it, and make it into something new. Sculpture can be a much quieter act. We encouraged people to explore their local surroundings, find materials in the everyday, forage, reuse and recycle.

“A student forages the largest and heaviest rock possible to carry from the college’s car park. He carries the rock up three flights of stairs while his peers cheer him on. He takes it back to the classroom to cast and realises it’s very big. He sits in front of the rock for ten minutes trying to work out what to do with it. After a quick chat with a friend they both decide to cast just one edge of the rock. One of them begins to build a wall up against the rock with clay, while the other mixes the plaster. The plaster is poured in, sets and the clay wall peeled away. The rock now becomes a sculpture and sits in the corner of the classroom.”

Joseph Legg, YSI Engagement Programme Assistant

In this case, what at first seemed like an audacious act—a young person playing up to their peers, demonstrating their strength and humour—quickly evolved into something else. When people are given freedom and autonomy, told that they can help shape what is around them, they can then realise a basic human need to make. We can categorise this as sculpture, to sit within a curriculum, but sometimes all it takes is obeying an impulse to carry the heaviest and biggest object we can see and make it ours.

“Material literacy, like sculpture, is both easy and difficult, soft and hard. It can mean something solid and cumbersome: the weight of bronze, stone, wood, and a combination of their lofty histories. It can mean trying to locate materials to do sculpture within a musty charity shop; an indoor market where it smells like fish; an industrial park on the outskirts of town; online as you scroll through listings trying to imagine what a thumbnail actually feels like. After that, it means carrying these materials in sagging blue Ikea bags before you slowly unpack them, one by one, across the floor of a school hall, or in some gallery space or even a garden (if the weather’s good!). It can also mean: temperature-controlled archives, custom-built shipping crates, white handling gloves and please do not touch.

So you can see why people—schools, community groups, parents—might avoid getting involved. But, material literacy can also mean something light and simple: the ease of a conversation, an observation, a small intervention, things without history or expectation. It can mean picking herbs and gently pressing them into a blob of cold clay; smoothing plaster around the hand to reveal the hollow shell of its form; taking a sheet of common printer paper and folding it into a three-dimensional object; playing with light as it reflects off and through clear water, glass jar, plastic bowl. In this way, material literacy is no harder or easier than everyday life.”

Bethan Hughes, YSI Engagement Artist

People we worked with began to see that sculpture exists outside of galleries and artists’ studios and is present in their lives. Sculpture is as simple as winding a piece of wool around a conker fallen from a tree. One student told their teacher (Lisa-Marie Dickson), ‘the best sculpture can be found in the bin or on the floor’. By using our hands to touch and form things around us, we are telling people that we are here and that we matter.

A community group visits The Hepworth Wakefield

Another teacher laid a sheet of A4 white paper in front of each student in a room. ‘Make the paper 3D’, she instructed the students. Some made paper airplanes, some other forms. ‘Is that sculpture?’ No. She lay a paperclip on her palm. ‘Is this sculpture?’ No. She bends the metal. ‘Is this sculpture now?’ Silence. One student puts up their hand: ‘Yes, that’s sculpture’.

A lump of clay. A lump of clay. If I had counted the times I passed a lump of clay to someone. A simple act that, when multiplied, creates a movement. One person suggested getting an ice cream van so that I could drive around Yorkshire handing out a scoop of clay to every person I came across. By limiting materials you open up endless possibilities for experimentation. This limitlessness can be daunting at first, and lumps of clay were often met with a quiet uneasiness. But a hand reaching and beginning to feel the mouldable form slowly encouraged an ease in touch and manipulation, and for some unlocked a complex plan, evolving into an elaborate building or a landscape with flora and fauna. A lump of clay has the potential to fire the imagination.

“It isn’t necessarily about making objects, making sculpture, it is as much about developing a way of seeing and understanding.”

Henry Ward, Creative Director, Freelands Foundation

“Sculpture provokes you to think in ways other less dimensional art disciplines don’t. I feel it activates parts of our brains that are rarely used in modern day life, hence why it’s incredibly important in our present time where the use of our brains is becoming a dying art, or even a myth! The renaissance of sculpture I hope is now and not a moment too soon!”

Fe Uhuru, Activator on Tarek Atoui’s Shuffle Orchestra

“Sculpture is volcanic”

Julia McKinlay, YSI PhD Student and Artist

“I lift the timber frame and it crashes into the fluorescent light tube above. The ceiling is low, the light flickers. I step back to get a better view but trip up over the uneven concrete floor.

The proportion of the sculpture is still not to my liking, so I unscrew each section, cut and rebuild for the third time, reducing each length by fifty millimetres. Re-measuring, re-marking, re-filling, re-sanding.

Dust clings to the sweat on my face; I need four hands but balance everything with two. Each time I remake, my method is more precise. Working through each stage with care, the production line becomes a conscious flowing cycle.”

Natalie Finnemore, YSI Associate Artist

So often the physical act of making is considered separate from intellectual pursuits. In the realm of sculpture there are points of disconnect between artists, fabricators, makers and a skills gap widening within arts education. I heard from people working in education that traditional methods of teaching sculpture are becoming more difficult. Students sometimes lack the manual dexterity to use a tool or knowledge about how different materials behave. Artists are graduating from higher education without easy access to facilities for making and are hitting barriers such as the expense of materials, space and time. These are similar barriers that can be found in schools, related to cuts in arts teaching in the curriculum.4 We have found that despite this, sculpture making can still happen when your understanding of sculpture expands. The most powerful thing people took from their learning was that sculpture can be anything. The most powerful thing that I learned is that sculpture can be made by anyone.

In a church hall in Armley material literacy was presented to us through an exchange of materials and tools. A man asked artist Bijan Amini-Alavijeh if he could take home a plaster tile and a carving tool. The following week he brought back what he had been working on; he had used hardened clay to make a relief carving of a Mesopotamian god, copied from an image. At times, when it looked like sculpture had no place within formal frameworks, such as the national curriculum, we saw sculpture-making skills and knowledge existing outside of art spaces and in everyday life.

Artist Bijan Amini-Alavijeh working with Meeting Point on a collaborative sculpture as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019

This story reminds us to interrogate the presumptions inherent in our understanding of engagement work, which are tied up in conventional notions of museums as holders of ‘knowledge’ to be shared with the public. It is a prompt to create further moments where unjust hierarchies are flattened and platforms are created for exchange. These are temporary spaces where sculpture-making transcends written or verbal language, connecting people from different backgrounds and experiences through physical materials, and people can connect to each other without the problems of accessibility introduced by written or spoken language. The artist is no longer a ‘teacher’ but a peer in their transactions with others. This is not a simple thing to achieve and we stumbled along the way, yet we found sculpture was a perfect leveller if handled in the right way.

Through all our work we have found that sculpture can speak. Working with materials can require skill and an understanding of technical terms, but it also involves a separate, unique language that has the possibility to overcome social and political boundaries, touching people’s lives in unexpected ways. These moments were often invisible within the curated gallery space and happened on the fringes of our work. They belong to the individuals or groups participating and can’t be claimed by those leading sessions.

“The moment a student came up to me in the Kimsooja installation and started to talk to me. I have been recording (making a video) so I stopped it as he started talking. He then went on to describe how he was connecting with the work and made the most beautiful statement. His experience and description was precious. I lost the opportunity to have it on film. I have battled with this ever since.”


“A smell triggers a memory; sculpture needs memory to exist.”


“Keep your ears pricked, waiting, ready. You never know when gold will slip out of a child’s mouth. Record, record, record! Don’t let that gold slip through your fingers.”

Sam Message, University of Leeds MA Student Placement with YSI

Learning with sculpture also creates a space for amplifying contemporary issues, particularly those around identity politics. We sought to welcome multifaceted debate into our gallery spaces and allow sculpture to provoke discussion across Yorkshire.

“Source materials. Too white, western.

Sharing personal narratives and cultural heritages while teaching about another.”

Ashely Holmes, Artist

“Taking up space through making sculpture is empowering.”

Lily Lavorato, University of Leeds Public Programme Intern with YSI

“Real understanding had come through the process of making something. Together.”

Zara Worth, YSI Engagement Artist

Often the spaces for these discussions are ephemeral or not visible in the gallery, but created through bringing people together and trust given to an artist to explore a question they were seeking to ask. This was created through sculpture-making but unlike sculpture it had no solid, material form, or a physical life beyond that moment. We encouraged people to make sculpture, document it, dismantle and destroy it. These objects will never exist within museum collections but they lived in the hands of their creators for a few hours, and then became something else. This has shifted my understanding of the importance of engaging with sculpture; it is the things that cannot exist in the material world and reside with an individual that offer the most significant learning.

Material literacy, I have found, can take many forms. The idea of learning with sculpture is complex and I find it as difficult to pin down now as I did two years ago, at the beginning of Yorkshire Sculpture International. Its ‘everywhereness’ and resistance to be communicated in written language is precisely why sculpture can continue to surprise, empower and unlock the potential of those who engage with it.

All images credit Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019
engagement programme (Photos: Nick Singleton)

  1. A. Lehmann, ‘Material Literacy’, Bauhaus Zeitschrift Nr. 9 (2017) pp.20–27. 
  2. P. Dormer, The Art of the Maker: Skill and its Meaning in Art, Craft and Design (London, 1994, p.14 
  3. britishpathe.com/­video/­barbara-hepworth-sculptress-1  
  4. Department for Education figures published in June 2018 show that between 2010 and 2017 the number of hours the arts were taught in England’s secondary schools fell by 21% and the number of arts teachers fell by 20%. In the last year alone the number of arts teachers fell by 4% and hours the arts were taught by 5%. (Cultural Learning Alliance, Increasing decline in the hours of arts teaching and number of arts teachers in England’s secondary schools, briefing July 2018)