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Peter Hanmer interview

Sculptor and installation artist Peter Hanmer (MFA, 2018) is preparing for an exhibition at the Manchester contemporary Art Fair later this month having been awarded the 2023 Air Gallery Award for his sculpture inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peter is a multi-award-winning sculptor and installation artist based in the North East of England. He primarily works in miniature and draws on varied interests including history, political philosophy and storytelling to create allegorical, dystopian and fantastical sculptural works.

One of his most recent sculptures, entitled ‘Keep Your Distance’ and inspired by the societal imbalances exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, was recognised by the Air Gallery and will be featured in their upcoming showcase at Manchester contemporary Art Fair (17 – 19 November 2023).

To find out more about this achievement, Peter’s plans for future artworks, and to reflect on his time at Newcastle University, we sat down with Peter for a chat. 

Hi Peter, congratulations on winning the Air Gallery Award this year! Can you tell us a little bit about the winning artwork, ‘Keep Your Distance’, and your art in general?

Drawing on my interests of history, philosophy and storytelling, I create allegorical, dystopian and fantastical sculptural works - chiefly in miniature. These reflect my interest in the power of art as a cultural and political critique, presenting intricately sculpted worlds imbued with meaning. It’s a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, an allegory for something bigger on a miniature scale.

I started work on ‘Keep Your Distance’ during the pandemic – hence the title! At the time, I felt that a lot of inequalities in society were really being exposed, the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. We were often told that we were all in this together, but we were being told that by politicians in positions of power or by celebrities from their mansions. 

So from these feelings, I created a scenario which had two quite ‘well to do’ characters playing a game with croquet mallets and bowls, firing them off into the air. But around them, the infrastructure they stand on, is all crumbling and cracked. I was trying to convey a sense of a former glory that is now rotting.

Earlier this year, I decided to submit this piece for the Air Gallery’s annual exhibition and was honoured to win the Air Gallery Award as part of it! As well as a cash prize, winning the award led to me exhibiting ‘Keep Your Distance’ at the Air Gallery in Altrincham and now they’re taking it on the road to Manchester Contemporary.

Exciting stuff! You studied for your Master’s in Fine Art (MFA) at Newcastle University after having completed your undergraduate at the University for the Creative Arts. Can you tell us about your time at Newcastle?

I started studying at Newcastle University at just the right time as far as my work was concerned. I had a very set style at the time and I didn’t feel like I was growing as an artist anymore. Joining the MFA programme broke me out of my shell and got me thinking beyond the confines of a model, my eyes were opened to a wider variety of material and techniques, I began experimenting with installation art. I have to thank my tutors Irene Brown, Richard Talbot and casting technician Burnie Burns for their support in helping me evolve!

During my time at Newcastle, I was also fortunate enough to get a big commission at the Cheeseburn Sculpture Garden in Ponteland. The School gave me the platform to make that possible and the space to push myself in creating that commission too. It pushed me in the best way possible.

I have a lot of happy memories in the studios and the casting workshop. We were a small group of 12 students on the course, so we bonded well and had a good laugh in the studios as well as learning lots about our craft. 

What were the other highlights of your student days at Newcastle, aside from the Cheeseburn commission?

I spent most of my second year working towards the Cheeseburn commission, which opened in the May. It involved 40 figures and thankfully I was able to have this work contribute towards my degree! I was working right up until the opening night, which was stressful, but having hundreds of people there to see my work was really special and something I’ll never forget. I am hugely grateful to the Co-directors of Cheeseburn, Matthew Jarratt, Joanna Riddell and the Gillian Dickinson trust for that opportunity.

I didn’t really have time to get involved in extracurricular activities on campus – especially in my second year! – but I made sure to get out and about in the larger Newcastle artist network while I was studying. There’s a lot going on there and that’s what’s so great about Newcastle: it’s big enough that there’s enough going on, but not so big that it feels disparate, you know?

I have a lot of happy memories in the studios and the casting workshop. We were a small group of 12 students on the course, so we bonded well and had a good laugh in the studios as well as learning lots about our craft.

I really made the effort to cultivate my network of other artists from the MFA and BA course, but also across the city. As a lecturer now, I always tell my students that their fellow students are their best resource!

In the run up to my degree show, I worked with the film company Candle & Bell, supported by the University, to produce a film of the installation which became a work in itself for that show. The following year, Alessandro Vincentelli - curator at the Baltic at the time - invited me to reimagine the installation for the Baltic’s Digital Citizen exhibition. I’ve been visiting the Baltic since I was a kid, so that was a huge moment for me. It was also exciting to try something new and translate my work into a new context.

And what else have you been working on since you graduated?

Leaving the comfort blanket of university was a bit of a shock and it’s been hard at times but I’m really proud to have been able to continue to exhibit my pieces around the country alongside teaching.

I worked with fellow Newcastle Fine Art alumnus Jed Buttress last year on a solo show at Newcastle Arts Centre which brought together 10 years’ worth of work together in one place. Some pieces on display dated back from my undergraduate days which were alongside more recent stuff where I had been playing about with animatronic elements with Jed’s expert input! It was my first gallery solo show and Jed did an amazing job with getting the word out about the exhibition. It was really gratifying to see how many people we got through the door. That’s something I need to be better at – marketing myself!

And then obviously the Air Gallery award has given me a new platform to showcase me work in new areas. I’m really excited to be exhibiting in Manchester again this November and hopefully that will lead to new opportunities and connections. I’m currently working on an accompanying piece to ‘Keep Your Distance’ which will hopefully be ready in time for Manchester so I can exhibit them together.

Just a few days after the Air Gallery award, I was accepted into the Royal Society of Sculptors, which meant a lot to be recognised and amongst my fellow sculptors: getting their rubber stamp of approval! I’m already trying to make the most of the networks within the society and just build on that.

Wow, what an achievement! What would you like to achieve in the future?

This is a bit of a pipedream, but I’d love to exhibit in New York and as part of the Venice Biennale in my lifetime. And have a solo show in London (previously I’ve only been part of group exhibitions). It has also been a long-held ambition of mine to make a permanent public work.

Every new city is a new audience to reach with my artwork, so I’d like to hit as many as I can. And this is why I’m really looking forward to getting back to Manchester in November and taking part in my first art fair. It’ll be a different experience to what I’m used to and I’ve made sure I have the time to be on-site during the fair so I can chat to as many people as possible.

Every new city is a new audience to reach with my artwork, so I’d like to hit as many as I can. And this is why I’m really looking forward to getting back to Manchester in November and taking part in my first art fair.

Finally, what advice would you give to a student or recent graduate?

I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the facilities you have access to as a student while you can. Once you graduate, you won’t have the workshop spaces and the expertise of your lecturers and technicians at your fingertips – so learn as much as you can, while you can!

Both the Head of the course, Irene Brown, and casting technician Burnie Burns were instrumental in what I’ve went on to achieve. We’re so lucky at Newcastle to have a diverse staff and so there’s bound to be someone you can connect with to help your art grow.

And also, immerse yourself in the art scene at Newcastle. Get out to the installations and the galleries – you could make connections that will be invaluable in future!

That’s great advice, thanks for speaking to us Peter!

You can see ‘Keeping Your Distance’ at Manchester Art Fair from 17 – 19 November 2023. Check out Peter’s other works via Instagram @peter_hanmer and on his website

Fine Art at Newcastle University

2023 marks the 100-year anniversary of Fine Art at Newcastle.

Based at the very heart of Newcastle University's city-centre campus, the art school provides students, from undergraduate to postgraduate, with excellent workshops and studio spaces, support by excellent technicians, and a superb Visiting Artists Programme

The department is committed to supporting and engaging with the full range of both traditional, contemporary and emerging studio-based practices in Fine Art; whether a student is working with painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, performance, film and video, digital media, or installation, we are able to provide a unique level and quality of support.

Newcastle's diverse and lively arts and cultural scene with its galleries and venues goes hand-in-hand with our continuing and distinguished history in innovative art teaching. The current breadth of staff, and the resulting breadth of practice and research in the subject area is a significant element of the vision and pedagogical stance within Fine Art at Newcastle; it is an approach that has its roots in post-war radical art education, much of which was originally developed at Newcastle.

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