Final Report

In my role of Public Art Poet with the Poetry Society I was invited by the Public Art Commissioning Agency to contribute to a series of temporary installations and artworks placed in this historic quarter of the city. The Jewellery Quarter has been known since the 18th century as a centre for jewellery craftsmanship and manufacture. The poems were a response to the social history of the area and an experiment in writing and placing poems as site-specific interventions in a defined locality. Whilst poems have been situated in public spaces before, the particular challenge here was to create interactive work that was responsive to and grew from the mores of this particular culture and was as visually arresting as the other art works included in the project. Poems have their own dynamic form and rhythm; they are not simply chopped up prose. Their structure, therefore, had to be respected and often defined how and where they could be sited, alongside other considerations that included the protection of listed buildings and permission from landlords and the local authority.

I started by doing research on the demography, artisan practices, living conditions and influxes of immigration that dominated this part of the city from the 18th century to the present day. The Jewellery Quarter is a tight network of streets, alleys, squares and neo-Gothic red brick buildings. Until the early 20th century it was a close knit community. It made not only the first mass produced jewellery, but was also home to a number of small manufacturing businesses making buttons and buckles, silverware and medals.

Although business flourished until the demise of trade in the First World War, there was also a great deal of poverty in these narrow streets. The trade splintered into its specialist branches of assaying, diamond mounting, electroplating etc. It was this specialised language that I appropriated as the starting point tbr the poems. These rich terms seemed to carry a covert emotional resonance, to act as metaphors for psychological and physical states.

The seed for the poem 'The Birmingham Goldsmith' grew from a tiny piece of social history. Gold workers were nightly forced to sweep the floors of' their workshops to salvage every grain of valuable gold dust, One canny worker was known to wipe his dusty fingers through his greasy hair. He then went home and washed it under the tap salvaging the aureate dust in the wash-basin.

The project took a number of forms. 1000 poems were printed on gold leaf paper and folded into tiny fans and placed in ring boxes. These were hidden in various locations around the city. My poem, 'The Jeweller's Mistress', was inscribed onto the glass window of Roy G Hancock's jewellery shop. It employed both the typography and the gold lettering common to the sort of signage in jewellers' windows declaring that 'the best prices are paid for scrap'. At first the poem appeared to be no more than the usual lines of commercial text to woo the cautious customer. It was only as the viewer approached and began to read that the text revealed itself as a poem. 'The Assayist', another of the poems placed in the ring boxes, used the notion of alchemy and transformation, as well as the technical language of the trade.

'Metallic Pen-makers to the Queen' was a found poem. During my research I came across an original advertising feature for the pen factory in Victoria Street, the language and typography of which were delightfully archaic. I appropriated both these for the poem which has now become a permanent feature, painted in silver metallic ink in script echoing that of the original article, on a matt black wall of Victoria Works where the original pen factory was sited.

'The Gold Cutters Daughter' took as its point of reference the influx of the large Jewish population that settled in the area and formed the basis of a site-specific collaboration with the American artist Pat Kaufman. The work was placed in a hidden room beside Turley's jewellery workshop and could be peered at, but not entered, from the street. The text of the poem, inscribed on panels of glass, was periodically illuminated from behind. Using layers of dust, the original jumble of furniture found in the room, cascading wire wool and coloured lighting, the installation evoked a sense of timelessness and melancholy history.

This has been an exciting way of working. It has demanded not only poetic awareness but also visual sensitivity and an ability to think three dimensionally. Poetry has grown beyond its normal space on the white page. Suddenly the poet has become artist and whole new vistas have opened.

- Sue Hubbard