Ray Lonsdale's love for the city and his "gan canny" work of celebratory art

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Ray Lonsdale describes himself as someone who 'always tries to see the world in the best way'. 

And, through his work, the County Durham artist helps others to do the same, making use of the same skills once honed by men and women fabricating ships to create iconic sculptures that inspire the communities they stand among.

Now, the man who spent his childhood days in Sunderland is set to unveil a stunning new piece, that pays homage to memories of Saturday afternoons in the heart of the city, and will be positioned at the heart of the regenerating Riverside Sunderland, a post-industrial urban quarter that is rapidly reinventing itself.

"Though I grew up in County Durham, my family were from Sunderland and my grandad used to take me down to Sunderland on a Saturday morning," says Ray Lonsdale, the talented local artist engaged by Sunderland City Council to create pieces that will leave a lasting legacy of the city's industrial past.

"I can recall the atmosphere in the city centre when Vaux was open.  The dray horses, which - by then should really have been a thing of the past - but were part of what made Vaux what it was.  I can still picture them in my mind. 

"And when you speak to people about their memories of Vaux, they all talk fondly of the place, of the atmosphere, the sounds, the smell, and more often than not, they tell you about the dray horses because they really became an iconic part of the city centre. 

"When I was first approached by the council to work on this piece, I just felt that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.  I know how much the dray horses meant to people and it is really nice to be able to create something that so many people have a positive sentiment about."

Ray has spent 14 months working on a life-sized sculpture of the dray horses and the cart, perfecting every last detail, from the spokes of the wheels, to a realistic recreation of a bucket carrying sculpted horse mess that hangs on the side of the cart.  Crates of Vaux even contain sculpted bottles.  It is the detail of the piece that has made this the single most challenging commission that the artist has ever produced. 

"It's certainly the most complex piece I have worked on in my career so far," says Ray, who works from his studio in South Hetton.  And that's clear by the sheer man-hours put into the project.  14 months of working on the piece alone, which is almost three times the time taken to create Seaham's iconic Tommy, which has become one of the artist's most famous pieces.

"Detail wise, the horses were a challenge.  Though it's art, and an artistic interpretation of reality, you still want to be right.  You want it to be realistic enough that people connect with it.  And that's often about the small details.  I wanted to create a piece that feels real and connects people to the history of the site, and that people would return to and, each time, spot a detail they might not have the last time they saw it. 

"That intricacy is what has made this a challenging commission, and in honesty, though I spent 14 months on this piece, I could have spent 14 years on it and still had more to do.  It can be hard to know when to stop, but I think the finished piece is detailed enough, but ultimately, it's art and it shouldn't be perfect - it is much more about the atmosphere it creates and the feelings it evokes."

And what of the emotions Ray has, as he waits for his work to be unveiled to the city?

"It's a mix of emotions.  I have created a piece that I am happy with and that - for me - does represent the memories I have of Vaux, but you never really know how other people will connect with it.  But art does divide opinion - that's what makes it art. 

"I do get incredibly nervous about unveilings.  That's the daunting bit really, seeing whether it clicks with people in that moment. 

"I am just so flattered though, to have been given the chance to create something that celebrates the past in a city that is focused now on the future.  It's easy to look back at what we had, but the fact that this piece will stand in a part of the city that is literally looking over at the Vaux site, which is quickly transforming into an impressive new place, means it really is about giving a nod to the past without dwelling on it."

The piece, which Ray has called 'Gan Canny', will stand on the corner of Keel Square, looking across the road to the Vaux site, which is now part of the Riverside Sunderland quarter, an area undergoing rapid change with £350m worth of development projects underway on the site right now.  It is one of three commissioned pieces that Ray has produced, with two further sculptures celebrating the city's shipbuilding heritage set to stand on the Riverside site too. 

"When I was approached to come up with ideas for Sunderland, I thought of things I would be keen to celebrate, because they're key to the area's heritage.  The Vaux Brewery, the coal mines and the shipyards came to mind.  I remember the city's industrial past, so unlike some commissions, it was not a case of imagining how it must have been or felt to be there during that time, but recalling it instead.  The skill with art is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people who were there and provide that emotion to the person seeing the art - to create something that unlocks the emotions you want them to feel," says Ray.

"But the fact that I have seen and felt the emotions of these moments and these industries, means that I can actually know how I want the person seeing the art to feel, and hopefully that helps to capture the essence of these parts of the past."

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And it is Ray's personal experiences that have informed the two other pieces he has also produced on behalf of Sunderland City Council.  The first, 'Dead and Gone' features two shipyard workers sat side by side as they read about the impending closure of the yards in a newspaper, while the second, 'Launch Day' is based on Ray's own recollections of his dad taking him to see a ship being launched and shows a man telling a child what it was like to be there.  He hopes that the work - when in place on the Riverside Sunderland site - will keep his own memories alive while also bringing people to a place that is reinventing itself.  The two pieces took some 19 months to produce in all. 

"I went to see a ship launch with my dad when I was little, and I can remember how it felt to see it.  It was actually quite frightening to see.  The size of it.  And the noise.  Awe-inspiring.  I remember the moment the ship first moved.  For a brief second you feel it's you moving, because you cannot believe something that size can, and the scale of it means you can't tell if it is.  It seems to move so slowly, because is size, dragging the chains that control the pace of its entry into the water with it.  Then you realise it's the ship moving not you.  I can remember how that felt.  And I think that helps, to have the emotional connection when you are trying to invoke that same feeling in others."

All of the pieces have been produced from corten steel, which forms a thin layer of oxide when its surface is exposed to the elements, producing a 'rust-like' coating that helps them blend into the environment they stand among.  And the fabrication skills he uses to perfect his art are a legacy of the area's industrial past, learned from his father who himself honed fabrication skills as one of the last of a generation of men to build ships on the Wear.

"It's a different use of the same skills that built ships.  Just as the city has moved on, the people here have. 

"I have some fond memories of the past, and like a lot of people with a connection to the area, I do think back and feel proud, but it's wonderful to see the city reinventing itself.  From a personal point of view, the city is a much more pleasant place to be now than when it was an industrial town. 

"It was an industrial hub, with huge pits and yards up the river.  You can imagine the sights, the sounds and smell.  But the world has moved on and I think the city is a much cleaner, crisper environment now.  These were dirty, loud industries, and the city is ready for this regeneration, but we shouldn't forget that these places created Sunderland and they should be celebrated. 

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"Everybody liked Vaux - it seemed to be the happiest place in the world.  And so many people are still so proud of our industrial past.  So many people were employed in these places, they created their own communities and many of the values they instilled still live on.  To be able to transport people back there in their mind is so special. 

"I see the world in the best way, and I think these pieces will - hopefully - help others to do the same.  They will celebrate the past, but in a way that connects people to a part of the city that represents its future."

The first piece, Gan Canny, is expected to be installed at Keel Square later this year.  A planning application will be submitted to set out its location on Keel Square by the end of summer.