Regeneration: The battle for Kilvey Hill

Artists and locals have transformed a disfigured Swansea hillside into a sculpture park - but still the vandals come. By Emma Cook. Photographs by Harry Dillon
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Swansea's Kilvey Hill did not lend itself readily to artistic expression: a sprawling area of winding sandy tracks, with dense conifers, a stagnating pond, the odd burnt-out car... You could see why joyriders had staked a prior claim on the place, sometimes torching three or four cars a night. It is not surprising that the locals stayed away.

But, slowly, the area has been changing, thanks to the efforts of artist- in-residence Tim Norris, and the sustained involvement of the community. As part of a joint initiative by the council, the Forestry Commission and the Arts Council of Wales, the paths have been cleared, the pond cleaned up, and a series of sculptures installed. Now, far fewer cars are dumped among the trees; more people are visiting the area, admiring the sculptures and discovering the impressive green expanse at the top of the hill, which offers panoramic views over Swansea.

Last year, Norris was employed by the Kilvey Community Woodland Project to create works of art that would "respond to and reflect the forest environment". Back in the 1960s, the area had been subject to planting schemes and nature- trail development, but impetus dwindled, and by the Eighties the place had become a notorious hang-out for bored teenagers from surrounding estates.

They are still here, hanging on to what they view as their territory, but the signs are that their days are numbered. Kilvey Hill is starting to make a name for itself from its Community Sculpture Trail, made up of eight works of art. Each one is highly individual, created by people with very little or no previous experience in art or sculpture. Meanwhile, over the past eight months, hundreds of children have spent time on Kilvey Hill, building a longboat and creating a series of ephemeral sculptures.

When he arrived, Norris's first step was to establish contacts, talking to schools, enterprise initiative schemes and special needs groups. "We wanted to try to give people a stake in the residency. Some of them were buzzing with ideas and had never before had the chance to make pieces of art. We took them right through the process of picking a tree, then turning it into a sculpture."

Norris's own work, Wild Throne, halfway up the hill, took around three months to complete, with the assistance of more than 100 locals. "Most of the structure is actually about 3ft underground," he says. "People would walk past to see what I was doing, get chatting, then come back and help."

One volunteer was Marie Evans, 27, who went on to make one of the eight pieces, Contemplation, a striking sculpture of a man's head perched in front of a small waterfall. On the strength of her work, she has been accepted by the Wimbledon School of Art to study sculpture. To her chagrin, however, a group of locals keep attacking her work - she is here today resculpting the nose and lips, having returned this morning to find that they have yet again been broken off. "I think most people love it here," she says, "but a small minority of kids are destroying everything. If we actually catch the next generation of children, maybe they'll have pride and respect for where they live."

It will need a lot more time and money, though, and ultimately it is not easy to imagine the small but hardcore group of persistent offenders being drawn in. There is a sense of disappointment that they seem hell- bent on ruining a project designed to benefit everyone. As Norris says, "There was a sort of threshold we really thought we had crossed. We thought we'd made a breakthrough, and worked with so many schools. Then, just as soon as you think you've got somewhere, they burn it down or trash it."

Exhibitors in art galleries are essentially preaching to the converted, and gallery artists endure little worse than the odd scathing review. Here, by contrast, the risk is of seeing months of painstaking work smashed overnight. Interestingly, the vandals do display some discrimination: the more abstract the sculpture, the more it is likely to be an object of their destructive impulses. One of the eight pieces, Totem, by local Sally Dixon, is a thin trunk of wood, which originally had a small rectangle of beautifully hand-painted glass suspended within it. The glass has long since been smashed, tiny shards of it are scattered along the sand track. Yet a figurative sculpture, The Green Man, by far the most imposing of the eight, has remained untouched. Over 8ft high and welded from the burnt and rusted remains of cars, with sinister red eyes, it looks daunting. The creator, Peter Thomas, 61, is very much the force behind the project, working closely with Norris during his residency.

Thomas, who used to work for an engineering firm, has lived in the area for 30 years and used to bring his children here to play. "I read about the project in the paper and wanted to get involved. We pushed the idea forward, and waited for a bit of funding, and then Tim came along. I do have a sentimental regard for the area, I suppose. It's 10 minutes' walk out of a deprived estate to this" - he motions towards the sweeping vista that takes in the whole of Swansea, from the estuary at one end to the high-rise estates on the hills at the other. Even though some on the project feel disheartened by the constant vandalism, Thomas remains bullish about their achievements.

"We've cleaned all the paths and put so much back, I think we're really starting to change perceptions. When locals come here they're really surprised by how nice it is. I just want to get them all up here on the hill, to see what it's really like. Give it back to the people - they're the ones who should be using it"

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