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Sheep at McKenna Green

Art in the landscape

13-December-2012 by Aileen Shackell

This summer we completed our refurbishment of McKenna Green, a small courtyard area on a housing estate in the east end of London. Though a small area there were significant constraints which meant the budget was stretched to breaking point - very awkward changes in levels, difficult access, contaminated soil, the likely presence of old (Edwardian swimming pool!) foundations. However by July and just in time for the Olympic related road closures we were pretty much done and contractor In-Ex were ready to move off site. (By the way they got our award for being the least troublesome ever landscape contractor......input needed on a scale of 1 to 10......2?!).

The final touch was the installation of a 'feature' as it was referred to in project meetings....what was it to be? There ensued much hilarity over several months where various wild suggestions were bandied about. A recurring theme was the Old Ford Housing Association favourite - a giant flower (6m high?) in steel - this had been installed already ona number of nearby sites and there was a real possibility it would become the default option, though our own view was that it probably wasn't the right solution here for the scale of the surrounding space.  

In the end Aileen Shackell Landscape Design won the argument....for a sheep.  Why? Well centuries ago Bethnal Green was a tiny hamlet surrounded by meadows and pastures where sheep and cattle grazed. Hard to visualize now with the mayhem of the Roman Road market on a busy day just round the corner (apparently the original inspiration for Eastenders). Anyway we felt it would be great if we could introduce a visual reminder of Bethnal Green's distant past. So a sheep it was to be. Any final doubts were assuaged when it became known that the design practice for part of the Olympic Park had commissioned sheep too, for the new play spaces there.....from the same our sheep would be the first of the east-end Olympic flock.

With the client suggesting that the sheep might be 'lonely', the decision to give her a lamb was made, and sculptor Reece Ingram was finally duly despatched to create the sheep and lamb from a fallen oak tree sourced from the wilds of Dartmoor.  In July the sculptures were carefully installed on their own patch of grass where they quietly survey the surrounding residents and provide an informal seat for passing children.

So to sum up why the sheep? well the thinking would apply to all art, as far as we see it...
- it's site specific - the art has been chosen to be appropriate in scale for the setting - above all, here it should not  dominate the space but be part of it
- it has an underlying rationale - upon which enjoyment of the piece does not depend, but an understanding of the rationale enhances the enjoyment of the piece once you know what's going on
- it has a suitable material and finish - to cope with the likely wear and tear (though to date no vandalism has occurred) - and will weather beautifully and need little or no maintenance
- it was chosen to enhance the character and atmosphere of the space - here the sheep convey a sense of stillness and calm, a real asset in a space which had previously felt quite noisy and hostile.

Enjoy the video of the carving on You Tube......just type Aileen Shackell into the search bar and it'll come up.