Artist Trevor Pitt is evoking childhood memories with a project that engages close-knit communities, writes Lorne Jackson.
Most people would agree that park benches aren’t the most inspiring objects in the world.
As examples of furniture go, they fall far short of the kind of seating arrangement Prince William and his fiancé can look forward to lounging upon, one fine day.
The possibility of a humble bench being mistaken for a gold-encrusted throne is as likely as a tramp being confused with a toff.
What is a bench, after all?
A ladder that likes to loaf. A few planks of wood screwed together, then mottled with moss, massacred by woodworm and peppered with pigeon poop. Though that isn’t how Birmingham artist Trevor Pitt views things.
He has turned the humble bench into a thing of rare beauty.
In the last few years he has invested his craft and creativity into transforming a series of benches.
The finished works are very much like the typical seats you can spot in any local park across the Midlands – with one major difference.
Pitt’s benches are covered in knitwear, which explains why he calls them ‘soft benches’.
He has been making these wool-warped works of weirdness and wonder since 2005. His latest, which is called The Black Country Bench, was made with the help of a local group of Black Country knitters.
The wool they used was an important part of the art work, as it was spun from an ancient breed of sheep, then dyed with steel wool, to give it a gritty, industrial look.
It’s now on show at The Public Gallery in West Bromwich, and Pitt sees it as the latest variation of an idea that began when he started to look back into his own past.
The first soft bench he made was for the Glebe Farm housing estate in Birmingham, where he was brought up.
At the time he wanted to make a political point about the difficulties faced by the local community. “My mum had recently been knocked down by a drunk,” he recalls. “And my auntie had been robbed of £10 bingo money.
“Yet the council estate where I was raised, and where my family were still living, had originally been constructed as some sort of ideal village. My family had moved out of the slums to live there, and they saw it as some sort of utopia.
“When I was a kid, there were rose gardens and benches in the shopping area, and people could sit and have a chat.
“Then, 15 years ago, the benches were cleared from Glebe Farm, in order to build a car park for a shopping centre.
“At the same time, the ravages of Thatcherism were really hitting home. The white working-class estates like the one where I was brought up were being decimated by people not having any work.
“Petty crime set in, along with drug taking and vandalism.”
The estate may have been crumbling into a state of disrepair, but Pitt managed to dodge the destruction.
He left for university and a voyage of personal discovery, finally settling on a career as an artist.
Though he stayed in Birmingham, he lost touch with his roots on the council estate, and admits that for a while he was more concerned with breaking free of the bondage of his birthright.
“I left the council estate with a huge chip on my shoulder about art and culture, and also class,” he says.
“At that point I just wanted to be posh, that’s all.
“I guess you could say that I hated working-class people until I was 20. Couldn’t stand them. I thought they were pigs and vile, because I really wasn’t like them. And then I kind of learned to love them, in the same way you love your parents in your twenties, when you accept all their faults.
“That’s why it was so important for me to re-engage with the community that I had walked away from. This was the central idea of a soft bench in a hard landscape.”
Pitt explains that it was crucial for him to engage his mother and friends in his art work. This was to be a collaboration, and a chance for the artist to bond with the community that he had once felt so alienated from.
“I wanted to have an excuse to go back and find out what the heck was going on in that estate,” says Pitt. “So I kind of used my ‘artist’s passport’ to go back into this community, to talk to people.
“I was desperate to find out why my mum wouldn’t leave the council estate. Why she wanted to hang on to it, even though it was now this awful place”
He came up with the concept of the soft bench, hoping it would bring back memories of the estate during its glory days.
The knitting pattern also evoked Pitt’s childhood, as it was designed to look like his old school jumper. Pitt and his mum both knit, as do his mother’s friends. So together they worked on the wool coating for the park bench that Pitt had purchased.
Once completed, it was placed in various locations in the council estate, with photographs taken to mark the occasion.
Now the concept of the soft bench has became a fuzzy phenomenon, featuring in a prestigious American arts magazines, as well as being exhibited in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Pitt, who now lives in King’s Heath, has expanded the idea of the soft bench, working with different knitting circles around the country, including the group who made the most recent bench, currently being exhibited at The Public.
“The Soft Bench has just taken off,” he says. “So many people are excited by the possibilities. I think the one in The Public is the best yet, since the wool has that shiny, dirty feel and look. It really reflects the industrial heritage of the area, and the community of knitters who made it.
“It’s not just a bench, or a piece of knitting. It’s a story that you can sit on. The tale of a community, told in wool.”
* The Black Country Bench is being shown at The Public in West Bromwich until June 26. For more information www.thepublic.com or 0121 533 7161