Wild Honey, The Turnpike, Leigh, 2018

Women’s Work  

In all weathers, she beats the bounds on Thursdays at Astley Green, her pencil and paper peregrinations map actual perambulations on foot, which always wind up on the Pit Brow, the colliery space traditionally permitted to women. Here her boots follow in the clog-shoon footsteps of generations of sturdy Lancashire Pit Brow Lasses. Within the rocks beneath her feet lies the coal formed over 300 million years ago.

But at this junction history fails to meet geology. The well-meaning meddling of the ruling class put paid to that! Aghast by the working conditions of female colliery workers and deeming their attire of men’s old coats and breeches degrading to their sex, they were expelled from the face of the coal in the 1840s. Indignant at their loss of earnings and a livelihood they enjoyed, many women of ‘bold countenance’ contrived to work down the mines passing as men. Meanwhile, their sisters on the pit banks of collieries like Astley Green remained transgressive in their trousers, thrutching corves, foraging out fossils and riddling conundrums, defiant in their dirt. 

On a coalface of a different kind a group of women, in clothes akin to those of a Pit Brow Lass, are occupied with the task of applying many layers of graphite onto the pristine plaster of a Turnpike Gallery wall. Their faces grimed with the carbon that is the elemental root of coal and graphite alike. When their delicate stratigraphy of graphite resists further layers they polish its surface until it achieves a sublunary gleam, drinking in colour, shadow and light. Next they inscribe into its surface the distillation of those pencil and paper peregrinations into an arrangement of lines, which determine form and Astley Green Colliery appears and alongside it the faint glimmer of a lass from the Pit Brow.   

Stella Halkyard

Manchester, 2018

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Wild Honey (2018), inscribed graphite on wall, 18.22 x 3.89m. Permanently installed at The Turnpike, Leigh (Photo: Livia Lazar)

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Sweet Briar (Yates and Thom Ltd) (2018), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, 490 x 690 x 25m

Upcast I (2017), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, 297 x 210 x 18mm

Astley Ribbon (2017), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, 210 x 297 x 18mm

(Photo: Livia Lazar)

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Upcast I (2017), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, 297 x 210 x 18mm (Photo: Michael Pollard)

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Astley Ribbon (2017), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, 210 x 297 x 18mm (Photo: Michael Pollard)

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Wild Honey (2018), inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood, three panels each 210 x 297 x 18mm (Photo: Livia Lazar)

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Colliery Pigeons (2017 – 18), ink on paper, each 358 x 508mm (Photo: Livia Lazar)

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A helicopter amongst the pigeons

At certain times of day, a small flock of pigeons circles around the top of the decommissioned colliery headgear – the only movement where nothing moves. Although the giant winding engine is lovingly maintained in a working condition, the pulley wheels stand still, as they have done for almost half a century. When the wheels stopped turning in 1970, pigeons moved in and for a while, the place was all theirs. That’s what pigeons do. They squat buildings that people have abandoned and in some ways their routines  –  flying around, roosting on rooftops, scavenging for food, congregating here and there – keep on the daily rhythms of work and life of the former occupants.

But pigeons choose where they dwell. They seem to have an appetite for heritage. They are a universal presence in every old town square anywhere in Europe where they mingle with tourists and souvenir sellers; no ancient monument, fountain, old church or venerable ruined castle without them. For the locals, they are a nuisance, but for a visitor they a part of the experience of a place with a past, of a passing encounter with history.

And so they are in Mary Griffiths’ drawings. The rapidly sketched pictures are not ornithological studies. Rather they are notes of accidental observations form a site that has become a memorial to an industry, traditions and community all but gone. The notes never develop into a script. Their ambition is to capture singular fleeting moments, not to tell a story. Yet there is a hint in the artist’s choice of the subject that there is a story to be told. (Just as the rotor blades of the helicopter that somehow strayed amongst the pigeons in Mary’s sketchbook may hide a reference to the pulley wheels that once used to spin above the colliery.)

Pavel Büchler

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Colliery Pigeons (2017 – 18) (Photos: Michael Pollard)

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Sapling (2018), enamel paint on steel, dimensions variable (Photo: Livia Lazar)

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Fossil Rope (2018), found steel rope, 1780 x 80 x 70mm (Courtesy of Red Rose Steam Society. Photo: Livia Lazar)

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Fossil Rope (2018), found steel rope, 1780 x 80 x 70mm (Courtesy of Red Rose Steam Society. Photo: Livia Lazar)

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The Ancient Forests of Lancashire (2018) (detail), Carboniferous fossils from the Lancashire Coalfield (Courtesy of the Museum of Wigan Life. Photo: Livia Lazar)

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The Ancient Forests of Lancashire (2018)

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Shaft Circle (2018), 21′ diameter circle cut into the turf at Astley Green Colliery, planted with wildflower seeds.

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The Bower (2018), Astley Green Colliery