11 Portraits that Celebrate Sheffield Icons including Rock Stars, Athletes and more
Who represents Sheffield? Pioneers, performers, athletes, artists – these icons are celebrated in a new exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, sharing the city’s connections to inspire its young people
Creative Connections Sheffield brings together 32 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery and a selection from the city’s own collection to accompany a new, large-scale commission by Sheffield artist Conor Rogers in collaboration with young people from Sheffield Park Academy. It’s hoped that the combination of these artworks will allow visitors to explore ideas of place and community through the people that inspire us.
‘We’ve worked with the National Portrait Gallery for quite a long time now on lots of different projects, often with a focus on young people,’ says Sian. ‘They approached us maybe a few years ago to ask if we wanted to be involved in a project they were running. Because the National Portrait Gallery is currently closed for redevelopment, they wanted to run a project to get their collection out of London – and they were particularly interested in working with young people to engage them in portraiture, art in general, and explore their own creativity.’
Portraits of Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner, athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, actor Sean Bean, musician Self Esteem and politician Magid Magid sit alongside those of comedian Eddie Izzard and politician Roy Hattersley – each representing Sheffield in their own way.
Sian’s personal favourite is the portrait of hip-hop artist Otis Mensah (Sheffield’s first poet laureate). ‘It’s a really stunning photograph and it was purchased specifically by the National Portrait Gallery for this exhibition,’ says Sian. ‘They purchased three specifically to show in this exhibition to make sure that it was as contemporary as it could be. That photograph of Otis represents Sheffield today. It’s contemporary, beautiful and Otis is a brilliant poet and musician, who we’re proud of.
‘It’s such a rich collection and it’s amazing to get those national collections up to Sheffield. It offers an opportunity to think about what it means to belong to a place and discover people who we have adopted as our own (who may not have been born in Sheffield, but certainly have had an influence on the city). We’ve got some very familiar people in there; obviously the music scene in Sheffield is very well-known (we’ve got Pulp, The Human League and Def Leppard references in there), but we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the stereotypical connections that were included.’
‘It offers an opportunity to think about what it means to belong to a place and discover people who we have adopted as our own’
Those with lesser-known connections to Sheffield include aviator Amy Johnson and founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. In 1922, aged 19, Amy attended Sheffield University to study for a BA degree, and there’s now a building at the university named after her. Florence often visited the city to see her grandmother, who lived at Sheffield’s Tapton Hall and would attend services at Sheffield Cathedral.
‘We claim Mary, Queen of Scots as our own in Sheffield because she was here for about 14 years, imprisoned,’ Sian adds. ‘Actually, for the young people who worked on the project, she was one of the people that they really connected with because their school is close to the manor where she was imprisoned.’
The centrepiece of the exhibition features work by students from Sheffield Park Academy who have been working with artist Conor Rogers. The installation, based around a decommissioned bus shelter, includes original artwork created by Conor and the young people all inspired by the themes of the exhibition.
‘They have really explored what those creative connections are, particularly thinking about who inspires them in their lives and communities, and they’ve produced an amazing installation in the centre of the gallery,’ Sian says. ‘I think it’s about having pride in where you come from. That has been really backed up by the artist that we’ve worked with as well. Conor comes from the same area in which these young people live, and attended their school in the sixth form – and he’s a very accomplished, successful and talented artist.’
‘Actually, for the young people who worked on the project, she was one of the people that they really connected with because their school is close to the manor where she was imprisoned’
Conor has inspired Sheffield’s young people to embrace their creativity in all forms. ‘A lot of the young people didn’t have much confidence in their own ability or they thought that their work couldn’t possibly be in an art gallery – but with whatever you do there’s always a creative outcome,’ Sian says. ‘There’s an output for your creativity whether it’s poetry, or drawing or photography. There are plenty of ways to explore your own identity and the identity of your community.’
Sian hopes that art in Sheffield will continue to inspire its young people. ‘It’s absolutely critical that we inspire them, so they become the [gallery and museum] visitors of the future,’ she says. ‘Some of these young people had never even been to an art gallery before, so this was a totally new experience and actually seeing their work in the gallery for the first time was fantastic. We have magnificent collections, so it’s not just about what we bring to the city, there’s plenty of artwork that belongs to the city. We want to make sure that art is for everybody, and particularly that the galleries are accessible, friendly and welcoming so people want to come along, engage and find out more.’