“Once Catalyst called, asking if I’d like to submit my ideas, I just had to get this commission. I really, really wanted this.” Artist Fiona Hawthorne is talking about her latest project, the newly-installed artwork covering the pedestrian ramp outside of Paul House, and it is immediately clear just how important to her this part of London is.
“I actually used to have a basement flat a few doors down, when my husband and I had our first child,” she continues. “These were my local shops, I’ve walked or driven past the ramp countless times, stood on it to watch the carnival go by. But it wasn’t until I began looking at it as a project that I realised the possibilities and what a beautiful thing it could be.”
Recently completed, the ramp has been painted a striking shade of red, bringing a splash of colour to the vicinity, while its sides have been covered in a collage of photographs, drawings, personal items and images taken from the immediate area. If one of the aims was to create a brightly coloured gateway to this corner of the estate, then the installation is an absolute success.
“I wanted to include elements of the buildings and shapes of the area, of the trees and green spaces, of the people and the market and the things you can see,” says Fiona, explaining her concept. “I didn’t want to form a narrative – or worse, impose a narrative – but really just reflect the place as it is. Public art and colour aren’t used enough, but their impact on public space can be quite incredible. My aim was to create something to contribute to its surroundings in this way.”
There is a misconception that public art is installed at the expense of other elements of a scheme, but in truth there are separate sources of funding for such projects. At Wornington Green it was the residents that first raised the prospect of incorporating an art installation into the ramp, with funding sourced once Fiona had been commissioned.
Central to the brief from Catalyst was that residents be included in the process. Meetings were held, flyers distributed and conversations had, with a wonderful response: photographs – some contemporary, some from many decades before – were donated for inclusion, alongside children’s pictures, shop signs and even some crochet squares. “Everybody that gave something has at least one item featured on the ramp,” says Fiona, “including me and my family.”
Born in Northern Ireland but spending much of her childhood and early teenage years in Hong Kong – a city that helped inform her sense of colour – Fiona moved to Ladbroke Grove when she came to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. Immediately taken in by the area’s vibrancy and sense of community, she lived in various homes in the area for 30 years, becoming a resident of Kensington Housing Trust (now part of Catalyst Housing) when she and her husband had their first child. Even today, she lives with her family in nearby Shepherd’s Bush.
“The housing associations have been incredibly important in Notting Hill,” she says, “as they have enabled subsequent generations of the same family to stay and live in the area. It helps to foster the sense of community that the area has, something that is manifested in the way people speak to each other in the street – loudly! – and carnival, which I’ve been involved with for many years as part of a children’s masquerade group. It’s things like this that are really very special and make the area what it is.”
A notable feature of Fiona’s work is her use of computers in producing her designs. “It’s great,” she says, “you can undo things you don’t like and break the piece down into manageable sections, something that was particularly useful for the ramp with its twisty shape and separate elements. But it is ultimately still a blank canvas – you turn on the computer and there’s a white screen staring back at you!”
Anyone speaking to Fiona for any length of time is left with two over-riding impressions: the importance to her of the local community, and her belief in the transformative power of art. And when something as mundane as a pedestrian ramp is converted into something that has such a positive impact on the area, you have to say these principles are sound. It is a success that speaks for itself.