As a series of six sculptures found on National Cycle Route 1, The Dover Totems were developed by artist Elaine Tribley and tell the story of Dover, from the chalk coccoliths under the ground to the plants and flowers found on the chalk grassland and the local sea birds that fly above the landscape. The first sculpture can be found at the end of Athol Terrace at the bottom of the cliffs and they extend all the way to the National Trust owned land at the top of the path, acting as both a sign post and as a resting point to stop and enjoy the view.
Elaine was commissioned by Up on the Downs Landscape Partnership Scheme, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Although designed to create a greater awareness of landscape and heritage, it is also aimed at inspiring people to enjoy walking and improve their health and wellbeing. Elaine conducted a series of workshops with local people to develop the project and gather designs for the Totems, which she details on her progress blog. As the Totems form one of the nine CHALKUP21 landmarks, we caught up with Elaine to ask her a few questions about her work:

What was the commissioning process like for you?
I already had an image in my head of what I wanted to produce. It’s slightly changed from the original, but it’s more or less the image that I had when I looked at the brief. It changed a little bit in content and shape, but ultimately it was still the original proposal.

Did the content of the totems largely take shape in the workshops?
The detail of the content took shape in the workshops, but always in the proposal was the idea of working within the three layers. I always was interested in the process of starting within the earth and the cliffs themselves and then finding out the geology of them and what chalk is made up of. These perfect coccolith structures were the perfect opportunity to work with people in a way that was really quite different. So we began with the geology of the cliffs, and then the plant life – which is really quite specific to the cliff area – obviously there are some very protected species. Then the birds – the ornithology element – there are certain birds that make the cliffs their home. So they became the 3 layers that I really wanted to work with.

How did the totems develop?
At first I had the idea of the cylinder, focussing on the ships funnels or a stick of chalk. But this changed when I visited Samphire Hoe which is an amazing place, and learnt all about what was happening there. The South Foreland lighthouse was much more interesting as a shape than a cylinder and I wanted to see if it was possible to create something in between the two. I think the lighthouse has 10 sides and the Samphire Hoe tower has 5 sides, so our totems have six sides. It was reflective of those two ends of Dover – the lighthouse sits on the far end, and the tower on the other end.

How do you relate to Dover as an environment?
It was a massive childhood memory. When I saw the brief for a commission, it was like a complete [gasp] moment – ‘I would really love to do some work in Dover!’. My father worked abroad and we spent a lot of time going to meet him. We would do that crossing an awful lot. The White Cliffs of Dover are home and excitement – leaving Dover behind, and then returning. It always had that link with my father as well because he was a sailor, so the sea was quite important, and we were always visiting him or he was visiting us.
During the time that I was working on the commission, my mother died, and so the whole Dover thing became an incredible journey for me, and a very enjoyable one. I got to know an awful lot of people and became quite comfortable there. Often you waft into a place and do your job and wander out again, but I said to my husband ‘ I’m quite happy in Dover’. It’s quite an odd town because it seems like it’s in flux at the moment; it’s having a lot of investment put into it, but I often think ‘ oh don’t spoil it, don’t spoil it!’. It’s often a local person working in the cafes and shops here, and if you ask anyone they’ll give you recommendations.
It was a childhood, special place, but then it became bigger than that. I met a lot of people who had moved to Dover recently as well, so that was quite interesting. There’s an awful lot of new blood moving into Dover.
There’s that wonderful contrast between the rural and the urban in that whole White Cliff area. As a visual artist, that’s massively wonderful – I could sit there for hours in the grass on the cliffs watching the ships and all that metal.

The Dover Totems certainly reflect the blend between the rural and the urban …
Yes, it was very much trying to do that; using the materials and the structure to depict the urbanisation of the area. Then using the content for the rural. It was trying to bring those two things together. It was a difficult thing to do but hopefully, I’ve got there (hopefully).
The material was marine grade stainless steel. A basic steel would be galvanised, but we went for more of a brushed finish – marine grade will change over time. I think it will look nicer as it ages — on the launch it was really pristine. I like the layers where people start to touch it and the weather starts to set in. It won’t go rusty, but marine grade is that bit better so that it can be outside in the elements. It can take a hammering from the weather.

How did you decide on the heights and positioning?
A lot of the work that I do in the public realm is there but not  – so I like the idea of thinking that you saw something but not sure and then getting another nod towards it. Also I am fairly athletic myself, but the walk is quite steep and I felt it would be a nice resting point to have a seat halfway up the hill. The positioning was important because if you sit on the totems at the midway point you can look over at the boats and up to the cliffs and where you’ve just come from, and when you’re at the bottom you can see the totems at the top. So there’s a nice joining up of them. There’s an eye line. When you sit on them, there is something to see 360 degrees, all the way around. The one that is on its own is quite solitary, but its almost like a meditation space. You can look out at the port, then behind you the castle and the white cliffs. A lot of thought and time went into deciding exactly where to put them.

Read more about the inspiration behind the totems here. Find out more about Elaine’s artistic process and the development of the totems here