Monday, 8 June 2009

The Willow Man: M5 Mascot

Motorway designers are pragmatic people. They want us to get from A to B quickly and safely, and other considerations - such as whether travelling is fun - tend to be put to one side. It’s unlikely that the engineers who steamrolled the M5 across the Somerset Levels ever imagined that one day a giant Willow Man would thrill millions of travellers and become an unofficial symbol of the West Country. But he does.

In fact those civil engineers of the 1960s and 1970s saw the motorway itself as an art form, a dream of speed brought to life in concrete and tarmacadam, but most art-lovers are more likely to lament the destruction of the landscape than to extol the aesthetic virtues of junctions. This being said, it’s difficult to approach either of the Severn bridges from the Bristol side without a feeling of awe. Whether you’re looking at the simple lines of the first suspension bridge or the swooping, snaking curves of the Second Severn Crossing, it’s hard not to admire the mixture of lightness and strength embodied in these splendid structures.

During the summer of 2000, travellers crossing the Somerset Levels had something new to look at: surrounded by scaffolding a giant figure was taking shape as artist Serena de la Hey wove bundle after bundle of black willow around a steel frame. Willow Man was commissioned by South West Arts (now part of the Arts Council) to celebrate Year of the Artist, no doubt with an eye on Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North.

“One aim of Year of the Artist,” Serena de la Hey remembers, “Was to introduce the arts to a wider public. So various people suggested I look for a site close to the motorway. Now thousands of people see the piece every day, whether they like it or not!”

A local resident with a decade’s experience in working with willow, de la Hey battled with the elements to get the sculpture finished.

"Usually on a Friday it was raining very hard and the wind was blowing from a north-westerly direction,” she said at the time. “It was pretty grim. But because we had set the deadline, it makes you work through those extremities."

Planned as a temporary work that would be in place for three years the 40’ figure survived less than one. As the funeral pyres of the Foot and Mouth epidemic burned across the region the following summer, arsonists destroyed the Willow Man. And because of the restrictions in place the artist was unable to get back on site until September of that year.

When she did, she immediately rebuilt the wicker giant, assisted by donations from local businesses and ordinary people who had been horrified by the mindless act of vandalism. The new version was protected by a moat, and has so far escaped human interference. A pair of buzzards made their home on its head, however, necessitating an expensive refurbishment two years ago. As things stand, the Willow Man is due to be decommissioned in 2011, but it has become such an iconic Somerset figure that it seems unlikely that this will happen.

“I do hear from quite a lot of people who say they enjoy driving past,” says de la Hey. “You don’t get feedback normally when you do a piece of public art – you just let it go and it becomes a different thing to different people – but I regularly get emails about the Willow Man.

“People drive past it so often that it becomes woven into their lives. There was a woman who used to go by when she visited her daughter at university in Exeter, and someone else who passed it on the way to visit her mother when she was in hospital. I suppose it’s become a little piece of different people’s stories.”

Other artworks now adorn this stretch of motorway, including Peter Freeman’s sculpture Travelling Light, a 50’ column covered in LED lights that change colour with the seasons and to mark particular events. Welcoming drivers to Weston-super-Mare, Travelling Light offers a more hi-tech vision of the South West, one that is more like the Severn bridges – amazing but not personal.

To the people who trundle daily up and down the M5, the Willow Man has become a familiar presence and not one that they necessarily revere as art.

“The truck drivers love him,” Serena de la Hey says. “They call him Alan, after Alan Whicker.”