Esther Johnson discusses SHIPS in the SKY and her latest film and charity initiative
In this Researcher Blog, Professor of Film and Media Arts Esther Johnson discusses SHIPS in the SKY, and the charity initiative and film she has made during lockdown, featuring Reece Shearsmith and John Godber amongst other Hull writers.
FISH + SHIPS by Esther Johnson
When I was growing up in Hull, peering up at the sheer height of Alan Boyson’s ‘Three Ships’ mural was formative in my enthusiasm for modernism and my desire to study art. The sight of the mural would prompt my father, who came from a long line of seamen, to recount his tales of his first trawler trip at the age of 12 to Murmansk and beyond the Arctic Circle. I associate the ‘Three Ships’ with stories of fantastical voyages that began in Hull, and it remains a metaphor for where life might lead me.
Built from 1955 to 1964, the final Hull Central Co-operative was a modernist’s dream in five floors, crowned by a spectacular concrete handkerchief dome over the ‘Skyline Ballroom’ and restaurant. The ‘Three Ships’ mural, unveiled in 1963, is a bold, unmissable wonder of public art adorning the main entrance. Responding to the Co-op’s brief to “unite the community through art” Alan Boyson created this 66 x 64 ft. concrete curved screen to celebrate Hull’s maritime heritage and its trawler fleet. The mosaic comprises 1,061,775 individual glass tesserae, “as it was too big for ceramic work” and depicts three stylised trawlers with masts spelling ‘HULL’ over the motto ‘Res Per Industriam Prosperae’ (Success Through Industry) gliding through sea-surf. The Hull premises are unique in having three Alan Boyson creations sited in one building; the ‘Three Ships’; the ‘Fish’ mural (rediscovered by Christopher Marsden in 2011); and a ‘Sponge-Print’ tile mural (rediscovered in 2018 through SHIPS in the SKY interviews) for the store’s interior. The Hull artworks are some of the last remaining examples of post-war civic public art. In buildings of the post-war era, it’s often the public art that is first to go. After an extensive public campaign, the ‘Three Ships’ where granted Grade II Listing by Heritage England in November 2019.
Much of my work is concerned with highlighting alternative social histories, with a focus on stories of lived experience that may be overlooked. In celebration of all that the now-empty former Hull Co-operative premises represents – from progressive public art, the co-operative movement and post-war rebuilding, to women in the workplace, friendships forged through work, retail history, and the nightclubs that have used the building – my social history arts project ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ offers a unique 360 degree portrait of a building through time. The project commemorates the life of the building and those that have poignant memories connected to it, in addition to prompting questions about who chooses what heritage is retained in the built environment, and ideas of architecture and public art as ‘place-making’. The importance of public art on/in commercial and civic buildings alike cannot be overestimated. Works such as the ‘Three Ships’ are symbols of geographical and historical local identity, a navigational aid connecting people’s memories of the unique places they grew up in, or pass through. Former Romeo’s & Juliet’s (one of the nightclubs on the fourth floor of the building) DJ Paul Dakeyne (aka Tinman) discussing his memories of the building, says, “The Three Ships mural was a beacon because in those days people didn’t have mobile phones so would use the artwork as a meeting point to start their night out.” In a world crammed with virtual sites of memory, we still need meaningful sites like this in our real surroundings.
To date, approximately 100 oral histories have been recorded for the project in collaboration with Untold Hull and Hull Libraries. Interviews have been conducted with CWS Hull Co-op architect E.P Andrew, plus plumbers, builders and tilers who all helped construct the building; Skyline Ballroom (1966-69) band members, dancers and catering staff; nightclub Bailey’s (1971-1977), and Romeo’s & Juliet’s nightclub (1978-1991) DJs, club-goers and staff members; shoppers to the Co-op, and the later BHS and indoor market; and Hull creatives’ inspired by the building, ranging from photographers, illustrators, painters, singers, writers and poets. Through 2019 satellite project exhibitions were held in libraries across Hull: a means to share the research across different audiences, and gather interviews from communities in the respective library locations. Many of these interviews are now available online: Untold Hull and Mural Memories. All contributors to the project, be it interviewees or those sharing memorabilia related to the building, have received one of our special SHIPS in the SKY badges.
During the 2020 UK lockdown, and in a bid to offer some practical help to those in need, SHIPS in the SKY collaborated with We are 1 of 100 to create a charity T-shirt and Tote raising funds for FareShare and The Trussell Trust food banks. I’ve volunteered and donated to food banks and seen the direct difference that food donations can make. The Trussell Trust have three branches in Hull – one close to the ‘Three Ships’ on neighbouring Waltham Street, and FareShare have a Hull and Humber branch, which in turn supports other charities such as comedian Lucy Beaumont’s Backpack Buddies. The film and T-shirt imagery celebrates Hull’s rich culture and history featuring drawings I made of the ‘Three Ships’, and my favourite fish from Boyson’s ‘Fish’ mural. I created a short film for the campaign featuring edited lockdown readings of Philip Larkin’s remarkable 1945 poem ‘The North Ship’, recited by Hull/-based writers Vicky Foster, John Godber OBE, Jennifer Hodgson, Reece Shearsmith, Matthew Sweet and Dean Wilson. Larkin’s stunning poem, with metaphors and analogies to the unknown, fear, and hope, are all prescient themes during the current Covid-19 pandemic. There are folk up and down the country working hard to help others in more need than themselves and I hope the film and charity ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ T-shirt and tote are able to help too. The initial run has already sold out so we’ve announced a reprint as we have a long waiting list.
There are many plans for the future of the project, including a symposium, Modernist architecture tours, and extensive exhibitions incorporating an audio-visual film installation, photography, oral histories, archival material and ephemera connected to the building and project contributors.
Find out more about the project, and charity T-shirts, tote and film here.
The North Ship
by Philip Larkin
I saw three ships go sailing by,
Over the sea, the lifting sea,
And the wind rose in the morning sky,
And one was rigged for a long journey.
The first ship turned towards the west,
Over the sea, the running sea,
And by the wind was all possessed
And carried to a rich country.
The second ship turned towards the east,
Over the sea, the quaking sea,
And the wind hunted it like a beast
To anchor in captivity.
The third ship drove towards the north,
Over the sea, the darkening sea,
But no breath of wind came forth,
And the decks shone frostily.
The northern sky rose high and black
Over the proud unfruitful sea,
East and west the ships came back
Happily or unhappily:
But the third went wide and far
Into an unforgiving sea
Under a fire-spilling star,
And it was rigged for a long journey.
Esther Johnson (MA Royal College of Art, London) is an artist and filmmaker from Hull working at the intersection of artist moving image and documentary. In 2012 she won the Philip Leverhulme Research Prize in Performing and Visual Arts for young scholars. Her poetic portraits focus on alternative social histories and marginal worlds, to reveal resonant stories that may otherwise remain hidden or ignored. Recurring themes include personal histories, heritage, tradition, folklore, regeneration, and exploration of architectural vernaculars and the inhabited environment.
Current projects include a live cinema feature film ‘DUST & METAL’ with music by electronic artist Xo Xinh, and shot and researched in Vietnam; and an audio-visual installation ‘Liberation Radio’, a collaboration with writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet and sound artist Nhung Nguyen. Previous work includes ‘a ROLE to PLAY’ featuring former Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner; WW1 feature documentary ‘Asunder’ with music by Field Music and Warm Digits, performed with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters; ‘Abstractions of Holderness’ a collaboration with Saint Etienne made for the 2017 Hull City of Culture Basil Kirchin event and performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra; ‘Alone Together: the Social Life of Benches’ supported by AHRC; and ‘It’s Quicker by Hearse: The Tale of the Petitioning Housewife, the Protesting Schoolboy and the Campaign Trail Student’ supported by the Science Museum and the National Railway Museum in York.
Works have exhibited in 40+ countries, including screenings at BFI London Film Festival; CPH:DOX, Copenhagen; ICA, London; International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam; Landscape Institute, London; NASA, California; Sheffield Doc/Fest; and Tate galleries, London; with exhibitions including Humber Street Gallery; Istanbul Biennial; Japan Centre for Contemporary Art; and New Art Gallery Walsall. Film works have been shown on BBC and Channel 4, and her audio works have been broadcast on ABC Australia, BBC Radio 4, Resonance FM and RTÉ radio.
Esther is Professor of Film and Media Arts within the Art, Design and Media Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, and is ex-artistic-director/curator of Hull Film Festival. Follow Esther’s work on her website, on Twitter @BlanchePictures and Instagram @Blanche_Pictures. SHIPS in the SKY is on Twitter @shipsinthesky63 and Instagram @shipsinthesky63.