Have you caught sight of the striking, giant banner joyously hung across the exterior of The Harris? It reads ‘Look, Listen, Make Things’ in colourful typography. It was created from a small hand-painted sign designed by Patrick Brill, otherwise known as artist Bob and Roberta Smith and enlarged into a 20 metre wide banner, forming the largest artwork of his career. The banner also serves as a colourful invitation, inviting people to venture into The Harris, soak up the exhibitions and ultimately create their own artwork.
‘Look, Listen, Make Things’ is Bob and Roberta Smith’s first solo exhibition in a museum in the UK. As well as working as an internationally renowned artist, he is a writer, author, musician and art education advocate who uses brightly coloured text as an art form to create slogans on banners and placards advocating the arts in education and the importance of art and creativity in society. His artwork is instantly familiar, you may recognise his piece Make Art Not War which is featured within the Tate Collection.
The exhibition was officially opened by Councillor Javed Iqbal, Preston City Council’s newly elected and first Muslim Mayor.
“We’ve experienced ten years of the government marginalising the arts,” said Bob and Roberta Smith, when introducing the exhibition. “Arts are undervalued in education. Funding is being cut.
“It’s wonderful to be here, exhibiting in The Harris, surrounded by science, sculpture, painting and culture. That’s what we are.”
Before encouraging everyone to stand up and sing along to a song ‘Art is Your Human Right’, Smith greeted his sister Roberta whose name he adopted as part of his pseudonym.
Then the artist, dressed in a fantastic suit jacket emblazoned with ‘Art Is Your Human Right’, thanked his daughter Etta who features in the exhibition, as well as his wife, the artist Jessica Voorsanger with whom he collaborates on some pieces featured in the exhibition, Nicola Hood, Contemporary Art Curator, who worked alongside Smith to bring the exhibition to The Harris and artist Elizabeth Cake, who created five, large fabric banners that greet you upon entering the exhibition. The striking banners feature Smith’s rousing texts, ‘All Schools Should Be Art Schools’ and ‘Art Gives a Voice To The Voiceless’.
Smith is passionate about the importance of art in education. He is one of the patrons of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, advocating the importance of the arts to the government. In 2015, he stood against Conservative MP Michael Gove in Surrey Heath at the general election. The artist was furious at the marginalisation of the arts in schools. The artwork that he created and featured on his campaign leaflets is featured in the exhibition, alongside placards announcing ‘All Schools Should be Art Schools’ and one of his most well-known paintings ‘A Letter to Michael Gove’.
The artist hopes that as restrictions ease families and friends will be able to engage in making things and creating artwork within the gallery, alongside his artwork. In fact, there is a wall dedicated to some of his playful suggestions of things to make and do, as well as a large painting telling the story of how his son Fergal changed his art through the loop drawings he made when he was four. Fergal, the artist explains, is very good at maths and is combining his love of art with mathematics and is training to become an architect.
I ask Smith what can parents and carers do to encourage their children to make art and be creative at home.
“Draw your children,” says the artist. “Children will see you drawing and see it as an important thing to do, they will want to be part of it. Drawing is fundamental to human activity.”
He shows me the representative sculpture of his mother he created, ‘This is Deirdre Borlase’. Smith’s mother taught him how to draw and the sculpture explains how she did this. It is one of a number of the artist’s sculptures on display, including his memorial to singer Amy Winehouse.
Preston City Council hopes the major exhibition will draw people back into The Harris again this summer, before the building temporarily closes in October 2021 for refurbishment.
“There’s a real ‘Wow’ with the huge banner featuring Bob and Roberta Smith’s artwork hung against the iconic backdrop of the Harris,” said Adrian Phillips, Chief Executive of Preston City Council. “It’s something people don’t expect to see and we hope it will draw people in to see this powerful, hard hitting exhibition. I think the nature of the artwork on display may provoke and challenge some people and yet there is something very attractive about it. The bright colours and typography will appeal to a lot of people. We’re looking forward to welcoming people back.”
“We understand that not everybody has ventured out yet,” said Tim Joel, Head of Culture at Preston City Council. “All of The Harris’ exhibitions are available to view as virtual tours on the Harris’ website. We’ve been working with communities to support people in accessing the exhibition. Some people may wish to plan their journey around the exhibition beforehand using virtual tours.
“As well as the Bob and Roberta Smith exhibition The Harris has other new work on show, All Together Different: Exploring Ideas for the New Harris and We Are Here – Life through the lens of Black UK female photographers are also available to view.
“For anyone who would like to come along, we are encouraging people to book online, you may be able to walk in off the street but at busy times like weekends, we would encourage people to book. We hope that after 21 June we will be able to announce some family-friendly activities taking place in the galleries, details will be on The Harris website. There is plenty of space to social distance, we have Track and Trace in place and lots of hand sanitiser. We would like to welcome people back into the city in a safe way.”
Look, Listen, Make Things by Bob and Roberta Smith is at The Harris until 2 October 2021.
This article was first published on the Blog Preston website.