Sleepers: The Hidden Within

Banbridge hosts outdoor exhibition of stone heads by Belfast sculptress Helen Hanse

‘Draw alongside the silence of stone until its calmness can claim you’ – John O’Donohue

Stone sculptures, since ancient times, have harbored great religious, mythological and totemic symbolism. From the mighty pyramid tombs of the Pharaohs to the more humble gravestone, from the spectacular sculpted cities of Angkor and Petra to the rougher-hewn stone circles of prehistoric Western Europe, and from the once magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan to simple cairns, or stone piles, which mark pathways the world over, crafted stones are powerful signifiers.

You don’t have to travel to Egypt or Afghanistan to appreciate the beauty and mysteries of stone sculpture – Bainbridge will suffice. The F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio on the outskirts of the town is exhibiting twenty eight stone heads by Belfast sculptress Helen Hanse, in an outdoor exhibition entitled Sleepers – The Hidden Within.

Hanse has a very personal relationship with stone. She isn’t fond of the word rubble to describe the quarry off-cuts she works with because, she says, ‘it sounds unloved’. Stone sleeps until Hanse begins to draws the sculpture from within, at which point she recognises its gender.

Many of the 28 heads are mounted on wooden plinths, or sleepers – the type sold in garden centres for use as steps or borders – and which provide the play on words in the exhibition title. What meanings or mysteries lie hidden in the stone heads – the emerging narratives – are for the visitor to create.

The programme notes explain how Hanse wanted to respect the uniqueness of each stone with its irregularities. Looking at the different sized heads, the contrasting colours, textures and expressions, we are reminded of our own special qualities and the imperfections that make us individuals.

Yet there are stylistic similarities that bind the heads like the relatives of a clan. They share broad noses, almond-shaped eyes and bear a distinctly Eastern countenance that evokes Buddhist or Pharaonic art. ‘I’m so influenced by Eastern cultures,’ Hanse acknowledges. ‘I love the Egyptians.’

Several of the heads, particularly the moss-covered ‘Mushroom Head’, evoke the ancient Khmer city of Angkor, reclaimed by the jungle. This handsome piece was exhibited at the Dog House Gallery in Comber several years ago and came home with Hanse to find a place in a wet patch of her garden.

‘Moss started to grow up the plinth and then slowly started to go up her face – a lovely vibrant green,’ explains Hanse. ‘There’s an issue where people ask me if it’s shown inside can stone go outside and I say, look, it’s ten million years old and it comes from outside. It can go outside if you’d like it outside.’

As touching sculptures in galleries is so taboo it comes as a relief to see Hanse caress, as she might her own child, one of the heads – the magnificently impassive ‘Guardian of the Dawn’. Hanse has no problem with people literally connecting with her art. ‘I don’t mind people touching my stones. It’s part of the experience,’ she rationalises. ‘I love touching the stone because it gives me information. A million people aren’t going to wear them down and I’d rather that a young person got inspired to create a texture.’

Though the heads are for sale, Hanse might be just a little sad to see ‘Guardian of the Dawn’ – her stone offspring – be boxed up and carted away. ‘I’d be happy if he comes home and lives in the kitchen,’ she admits, smiling.

Some of the heads are more perfectly formed than others. Some emerged from stone cut from the quarry, while others sculpted from found stone bear the marks of eons of erosion. Texture is clearly an important part of Hanse’s art.

‘I’m not sure I like marble sculpture being polished. I like it feeling like a stone. You can overwork and over-neaten it. I like that I left them a bit raw,’ she explains.

‘This was a lovely series because I didn’t fear if bits broke off. It was about treasuring the erosion and the weathered aspect of the stones. So if bits fell off I just learnt to love that about them. This is the history of me working with this stone.’

Hanse finds peace and calm working with stone, a kind of ballast on the rough sea of life: 'I love the Jewish idea of leaving a stone as a wee marker of remembrance. I think it’s really taking us back to the earth and we’re so far away from that now,’ Hanse says.

‘Choosing stone and how it works for me is a real antidote to this fast-paced life that’s full of technology. It’s just that quiet relationship with it and it takes that bit of time, which I really treasure because everything has got too fast. We want things immediately and I think we don’t treasure them because of that.’

Ireland’s landscape is rich in megalithic treasures, a clear source of inspiration for Hanse. ‘I love going to Boa Island. That would have been quite influential,’ she acknowledges. ‘The ‘Janus Head’, she says gesturing, ‘came from the Janus figure on Boa Island that looked to the past and the future, so it was a wee nugget of an idea that I’ve always had.’

The islands and fields throughout Ireland that are home to stone figures and stone circles are effectively ancient outdoor galleries. ‘Those sculptures in Fermanagh are world class,’ Hanse enthuses. ‘They’re free to look at and we don’t appreciate them but they’re there to touch.’

It’s no coincidence that Hanse feels so at ease in the exhibition garden of the F.E. McWilliam Gallery. ‘There are very few other galleries in Northern Ireland that I aspire to show in after being here because this outdoor space is second to none,’ admits the sculptress.

‘I would love to challenge the other gallery owners to at least have a courtyard garden, just so that people know that sculpture can go outside. There isn’t a culture of that here,’ says Hanse, throwing down the gauntlet.

In an age when the hustle and bustle of daily life has throttled the habit of quiet contemplation there’s something very soothing about spending time with Hanse’s stone heads. ‘I would love that visitors and the people who have bought them would take away a wee sense of that,’ Hanse says.

As Artist in Residence for ArtsCare, Hanse knows all about the therapeutic qualities of art. The charity works in partnership with the Health and Social Care Trusts throughout Northern Ireland and helps staff, patients and clients reap the many health benefits of rolling up their sleeves and getting involved with creating art, whether it be silk painting, ceramics, mosaic, willow-work or painting and drawing.

‘You get working with a whole range of people which is lovely and you develop whatever suits that person and that project best,’ explains Hanse. ‘Some people feel they can’t do anything and have very little confidence in themselves. They might feel at a hopeless stage but you can move them through to a nicer place very quickly, which is a real privilege.’

Recently, Hanse has been helping visitors in workshops at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio to grasp the rudiments of sculpting stone. ‘I’ve really enjoyed doing a couple of demonstration days,’ says Hanse, ‘meeting people, asking what they’ve done and getting people started.’

If anybody thinks that sculpting stone is a rarefied art form that only a few natural talents can aspire to, Hanse – who only took up sculpting at the age of 40 – has words of encouragement. ‘I think people think, as I used to, that it’s quite difficult to access stone carving and start and it’s not. I would say go to the quarry and get their off-cuts – they’re the cheapest. Just test out the pieces beforehand. Test the softness of it, the hardness of it and the ring of it and you’ll know if you can work it. Order a mallet and a chisel on a website and just start.’

Hanse’s anybody-can-do-it encouragement is inspiring, but she has some advice for anyone thinking of taking the plunge. ‘Don’t work a seven-hour day because I think you’d start to get repetitive strain injury.’

Hanse has further sage words for would-be F.E. McWilliams keen to rush to the nearest quarry and get chipping. Ideas may come easily but the stone may have other ideas: ‘I learned a long time ago that the stone won’t move, so I might have to change my design,’ she laughs.

Sleeper: The Hidden Within originally scheduled to run at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge until the 17th of August will now run until the end of September.