A Response to the ChalkUp21 Trail - Charles Holland’s Bronze Plaques

When DAD invited me to work on the CHALKUP21 trail with them I was delighted. Not only is the project located on the East Kent coast where I live but it is about the role of contemporary art and architecture here.

My contribution to the project has included writing an essay about the trail (as well as descriptions of the nine buildings and artworks along it) and the design of the plaques that mark each of these works.

The plaques serve a number of roles: they are a way-finding device that provides information about the trail but they are also new pieces of sculpture in their own right. They offer both literal and figurative information, adding another layer to the project and its wider themes.

The plaques are circular but with one side deflected to describe the profile of the coast between Capel-le-Ferne and Deal that the trail follows. They have a depth of 45mm so that this profile is extruded to suggest the cliff edge that runs along much of the coast. Each of the nine works is marked in their position so that the plaques form a three dimensional map of the area. In the centre of each plaque is a description of the particular building or artwork which it marks.

The plaques are a little like medallions or badges but with a weight and heft that comes from being cast in bronze. The decision to use bronze reflects their location. The trail locations are highly exposed and subject to sea spray and a potentially corrosive atmosphere so the plaques are designed to age and show the effects of this weathering. They will start out polished but will eventually patinate to a greeny-blue. This process refers obliquely to the ubiquitous blue plaques of English Heritage. Like the buildings themselves, the plaques will pass from being new interventions in the landscape to old and familiar ones.

For me this subtle transformation resonates with the themes of heritage and modernity that underlie the project as a whole. We are familiar with marking and celebrating historic sites and buildings of interest. But it is as important to celebrate the ones we make today. CHALKUP21 does this, but it also recognises that this is part of an ongoing process and that contemporary buildings become old ones eventually.

The plaques were made locally. Signmaker Peter Watt fabricated the timber forms, and the bronze casts were made at the Spacer foundry in Ramsgate. The casting process is a fascinating one and each stage produces something unexpected. The timber forms were cast into rubber moulds which in turn were used to make wax forms. These melt when used to cast the final bronze versions. The baby pink rubber moulds and the deep green wax casts are beautiful objects in their own right and gain poignancy in being sacrificial parts of the process.

The conversations with Sarah, Karina and Stephen at Spacer were interesting too and concerned the subtleties of how bronze reacts over time as well as ideas about process and making. As a designer first and foremost, I tend to pick materials that seem right for each project. The idea comes first and the method of fabrication later. With this project I tried to let the material and the makers guide the process too, judging what was right as the idea was translated into form. The various stages of mould and cast are therefore particularly important because they describe this thought process and the journey from an abstract idea to a material object.

In their final form the plaques do this too: they are partly abstract and partly figurative, partly sign and partly sculpture. And when they are installed they will go through other processes to do with the atmosphere in which the sit. In a small, incidental way they will do what architecture always does which is go from a new, abstract idea to a background to other things.

The evolution of the bronze plaques. Photograph by Ruth Ward.

One of the finished bronze plaques. Photograph by Ruth Ward.

The production process: Wax being poured into a mould.

The production process continues: The finished wax mould.

Nearly finished: The raw bronze casts as they first look when cooled.

Detail of the mould and plaque side by side. Photograph by Ruth Ward.

The plaques are 45mm deep so as to suggest the cliff edge along the trail. Photograph by Ruth Ward.

The first bronze plaque installed at The Pines Calyx in St. Margaret's Bay.