North East sculptor Graeme Hopper has clients ranging from royalty to celebrities, local authorities to forestry commissions and arts councils to universities. When he’s not creating stunning pieces of art out of metal, he’s encouraging children with special needs to get creative. He recently took some time out of his busy schedule to tell Claudia Robinson about his fascinating career…
Having started working in the industry, learning how to weld and work with steel, Graeme served a traditional four year apprenticeship as a blacksmith and in 1990 established his business in his design studio and forge in Crook.
His striking metal creations are dotted around the North East. You’ve probably seen one of his works of art and haven’t even realised it. Perhaps his giant boot or the Millenium bug in Durham’s Botanic Gardens, the Gruffalo-inspired sculptures in Hardwick Park or the huge steel men pushing giant balls of coal up the bank by the Stadium of Light in Sunderland?
All of these are just some of a huge catalogue of impressive pieces created by Graeme.
“I love working with the local community on projects like these,” says Graeme.
“I’m working on a piece at the moment for the main roundabout in Chester-le-Street to create something that tells the history of the town. We’re engaging with children from three local schools to create a five-part piece that represents the Lindisfarne Gospels, the viaduct, cricket and so on.
The children drew their ideas which we then took inspiration from and developed them to create the final installations. It’s great because it gives the children a sense of achievement and they feel very much part of the project.”
Another piece in Chester-le-Street that is particularly special to Graeme is a sculpture in Riverside Park. He worked with the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, Sands, to make a sculpture to honour those who have lost a child.
“The sculpture is in the shape of a teardrop, featuring a tree and butterflies. Parents and loved ones of those affected by the death of a child are able to visit the sculpture and attach a lock with the child’s name engraved on it, as a lasting memory. This was a very emotional project to work on and we are planning to create a similar piece in Cambridge too.”
Greame’s works of art are scattered across the country. Lincoln Police Headquarters is home to another sculpture where people are invited to go and contemplate, while, most notably, one of Graeme’s mushroom sculptures is an official part of Prince Charles’ art collection installed in Highgrove gardens in Gloucestershire.
Greame explains: “Prince Charles and Camilla came to visit Hemlington Lake in Middlesbrough where we’d been working for the Clean Becks Campaign to transform this huge, rundown area into a beauty spot. I was asked by the police not to offer him anything but I thought I’d take my chances and presented him with the mushroom saying ‘this is for you and Camilla’. He graciously accepted it and I was later told by an aide that it had become part of the royal collection. It’s a huge honour and obviously something I’m very proud of.”
Not only has Graeme’s work enabled him to brush shoulders with royalty but he has also made a sculpture for actress Glenda Jackson, and has done some TV work, including featuring in Small Town Gardens and The Real DIY Show. Another part of his job that he talks about fondly is the work he does with children with special needs.
“I have a background in teaching and many years ago did a course at Lancaster University to learn how to work with special needs children,” explains Graeme.
“This was a fantastic experience and enabled me to turn blacksmithing into more of an art and take that into schools.
“I adapted a lot of my equipment to make it easy and safe for children to use, so they can bash something on an anvil and create their own piece, without all the blacksmith training. When I first started doing this we could take an anvil and vice into schools, set up in the playing fields and introduce the children to it on site. They got a lot out of it, bending steel, learning what happens when it is heated, how it goes like plasticine – they loved it.
“Now, with health and safety, it’s much safer for the children to come to us at the farm and forge where we have everything set up. So the children will turn up, they can run about, explore our sculpture trail, let off steam, go pond dipping and then we take them two miles away to the blacksmith’s shop where they can get creative. See the sparks flying and really get stuck in.
“It’s totally safe, we’ve adapted what we do so that they can take part, in a fashion, and feel that they’re part of the pieces that we make. The children can all make a flower, or a fish each, which I’ll weld and assemble into a garden scene for them to display at their school. I’m not sure who gets more satisfaction out of this sort of work, me or the children!”
Greame’s job is certainly varied. One day he’s working with special needs children, the next meeting with people from Durham Botanic Gardens to discuss a new installation and the next working on a private commission. And 2022 looks like he’ll be even busier.
“We have a few plans already in place for the coming months. I’m working with a primary school in Durham to create a dragon-related installation for Gilesgate Park, as well as another piece for Riverside Park in Chester-le-Street and something exciting in Gateshead. Hopefully, as we head into spring I’ll also have plenty more opportunities to work with children here on the farm as there’s nothing I love more than inspiring their creativity.”