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The Found Objects of Public Art | Sam Haynes

Sam Haynes, public artist and found art sculptor, standing in her art studio
Sam Haynes, public artist and found art sculptor

In the mid-pandemic world dominated by Zoom calls and dodgy Wi-Fi, there’s always a worry that any call or interview will be filled with periods of awkward silence that seem to last lifetimes, with both parties struggling to construct a conversation that ebbs and flows with ease.

Fortunately, with London-based found objects artist and sculptor Sam Haynes, the moment her smile beamed onto my screen I knew this would never be the case. Chatty, bubbly and easy-going, from the first “hello” I knew that my conversation with Sam would be one to remember.

Sam Haynes sculpture "Curly Exit". Blue curly straw, feather trimmings, coloured concrete slab.
Haynes, Sam. "Curly Exit" (2020). Blue curly straw, feather trimming, coloured concrete samples

Like many of the interviews I’ve conducted as of late, I began the conversation with a question definitive of the times: how are you finding lockdown? The response I received was nothing out of the ordinary. Like countless other artists in the UK, Sam’s lockdown has been full of ups and downs, with the closures of galleries and postponement of exhibitions seeing commissions cancelled and projects delayed until the government gives the all-clear.

“I had a lot of work set up for the beginning of the year, so initially I was thinking ‘okay, how much work am I going to lose’?” Sam recalls, after the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. However, in line with her optimistic demeanour, she saw this as an opportunity to grow and develop as an artist, describing the lockdown-imposed isolation as a “whole new opportunity”: “I could read, I could research art, I could take the time I needed to make art and to photograph it.”

Sam’s eagerness for opportunity is evident in her artwork, with each piece created being made up of “found objects”, materials with artistic promise Sam had stumbled across that consequently became integral components in the sculptures she created over time.

“I like the element of chance,” she says, with a smile. “I might find materials from a charity shop, but I also often use objects that I might find in a skip.”

Arguably, it was by chance that Sam found herself building a career as an artist, with her roots in artistry stemming back to a job as a narrowboat driver in Nottingham over 25 years ago. In a chance encounter on the canals back in 1995, Sam caught sight of an old Diamond Cable reel bobbing along the river. Fishing this reel out of the water, she took it home and began working on her first public art masterpiece.

“I ended up making a waterwheel on the wharf side that was out of this diamond cable rail that I’d fished out of the river. There was also a pub right next door, so I used around 150 of their pint glasses and connected them to the wheel, which when placed in the canal would fill up and turn the wheel,” Sam recalls.

Equipped with the waterwheel, Sam set to work on raising funds for a public art project, commissioning other artists to create work that could be showcased along the wharf side. “I can trace my practice back to that first piece of artwork,” she reminisces.

Sam Haynes sculpture, "Loop the Loop". Foam underlay, kite cord, CD wall rack.
Haynes, Sam. "Loop the Loop." (2020).

In that very same year, Sam moved to London to study MA Art in Architecture at the University of East London with ambitions to propel her career as a public artist. In her final year of study, she received the largest commission she’d seen in her career at the time.

“In the last year, I got a really huge commission in Hackney, something like £55,000, to [create public art] for a passageway leading through to the Tesco. It was a concertina piece, a screen where if you walked one way, you’d see images of pedestrians walking one way, and if you walked the other way, you’d see a different set. As it was a concertina, the images would be connecting up, so there was an interaction as well.”

Interactive public art was a theme that would come up time and time again in her blossoming career, working with schools and charitable organisations to create sculptures and artworks that would go beyond visuals, extending into a multi-sensory artistic experience. One of her largest public art projects was from a commission in Leicester, inspired by a bike ride along the canal.

“I used to cycle along a towpath and there used to be some stones there that didn’t fit very well, so as you cycled across them, they made a really lovely sound where the stones moved ever so slightly. As a result, I ended up creating this sound pathway out of brass panels.”

This project is but one example of Sam’s creative process as an artist. As opposed to practicing conceptual art – the state of picturing a finished product and working towards its creation – Sam instead considers herself as an artist of intuition.

“It’s very much about the process. I start out with these found objects or materials that I haven’t given meaning to, and I visualise what I feel would work with it, the materials that would complement and the materials that would contrast. It’s completely open – I don’t know where the process is going. I haven’t got a set idea and I like that way of working. I feel as though I’m discovering as I go along.

“I was listening to a podcast recently, and it was talking about post-rationalisation; that as human beings, as we evolved, our intuitive minds came first, and rationalisation came later. I really liked that concept. I feel as though it fits my art and how I feel about my art; that it’s got to be instinctive and intuitive.”

Sam Haynes sculpture "Cheek to Cheek". Small foam basketball, clear packing tape, wooden box, clear acrylic rods
Haynes, Sam. "Cheek to Cheek." (2020).

When I asked Sam what the most obscure object she’d worked with was, without hesitation she told me about the floral pin holders she found in the garage of her mother’s house when clearing it out. Not only do these pins hold sentimental value, but also reflect Sam’s approach to sustainable art, reusing objects that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

“They were loading up the big lorry that was going to the skip, and I kept thinking ‘I’m sure I could use some of this stuff. In the end, I made a last-minute grab and I saw the little pin holders, and thought yeah, I could use these tiny little things.”

The piece she went on to create became one of her favourite artworks to date: a pair of pink balloons, secured by the floral pin holders she’d rescued from a skip. Along with the sentimental value of the materials used, the final product ended up holding unexpected significance for Sam, associated with a difficult time in her life.

“A couple of years ago, I had breast cancer and had to go into surgery. Before the surgery, I’d had a conversation with the doctor, who told me ‘most women are happy to have bigger breasts’ and I was quite annoyed by this. Anyway, when I came back to work, the first artwork I created was this. The conversation wasn’t in my head at the time I was making the piece, nothing at all about breasts. I just so happened to choose pink balloons. Once I’d finished, I stepped back and thought oh, I’ve just created a pair of breasts. I found it kind of interesting, how my subconscious mind came up with that."

“It was very intuitive, very quick to make. I didn’t struggle to make it. And somehow to me, it all feels right. I think it would work quite well printed large, and I’d like it to be printed as such, because to me it’s large, pink breasts and I want it to be large on a gallery wall. It would make me feel good.”

Sam Haynes sculpture "Well Hello"; two pink water balloons and two floral pinholders
Haynes, Sam. "Well Hello." (2020). Two floral pin holders, two pink water balloons.

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