The singing stone: Gordon Young and Why Not Associates unveil new sculpture for the University of York

Artist Gordon Young has unveiled a new typographic sculpture for the University of York, created with design studio Why Not Associates. Titled the Singing Stone, the artwork is made from a seven-metre long granite boulder engraved with words from W.B. Yeats poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.

Artist Gordon Young has unveiled a new typographic sculpture for the University of York, created with design studio Why Not Associates. Titled the Singing Stone, the artwork is made from a seven-metre long granite boulder engraved with words from W.B. Yeats poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.

The sculpture is one of several installed around York’s campus, which is also home to pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Thomas Taylor and Polly Ionides. It was commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university’s music department and the tenure of Dame Janet Baker, a famous opera singer and performer, who was chancellor from 1991 until 2004.

It is the first collaboration between Young and Why Not since the brilliant Comedy Carpet in Blackpool, an installation made out of over 160,000 granite letters embedded in concrete. The artist also worked with the studio to create a series of typographic trees for Crawley Library, climbing towers for Blackpool and a ‘wall of wishes’ made from marble for Bristol’s Brunel Academy. Last year, Young created a colourful typographic climbing wall in Barry Island, made out of thousands of pieces of recycled plastic.

The text for the Singing Stone was chosen by Baker, who used to sing a musical adaptation of Yeats’ poem as an encore at live performances. Young says the sculpture was inspired by Viking runestones (large stone sculptures documenting Viking voyages to Europe, which can be found across Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia), as well as Yeats’ verse.

“I started thinking about the sculpture, and the grounds, and the clue was in the lyrics,” says Young. “The first line is to do with the heavens, the stars up above our heads, and finishes with treading softly, so it goes from the heavens to the ground. Originally, I thought we needed something where the words seemed to be falling to earth, pulled down by gravity, and that made me think of a vertical, totemic thing,” he says. “As York’s a Viking city, I thought of runestones, these big granite boulders with words, or sometimes an image carved into them, which are all over Sweden. Some are around 12, 14 or 1500 years old, and they’re still readable,” he adds.

The stone, a glacial boulder, was sourced from a farm in the West of England and shipped to East Yorkshire to be shaped and engraved.

“I tour quarries all the time, but I found this extraordinary stone by chance, a glacial erratic, left over from an ice field in a farm,” explains Young. “I wanted to use granite because that’s what the Viking stones were usually made from, which gave me Scotland, part of Wales and southwest Ireland [to source stones from], or I could have imported it, freshly quarried, but I thought it would be better to keep to one from these isles. That’s how they would have done it in those days – they would have found one in a field and chipped away at it,” he says.

The initial idea was to wrap words around the stone in a spiral, with letters starting off small and gradually increasing in size. But when it came to applying the text, the spiral concept didn’t work, says Young.

“The mathematics was really complicated. There were so many words and letters, and you’re not just working on a parallel ribbon, but a ribbon that is changing size all the way down. We spent a full day working on the spiral but when we started to lay it out, it was a disaster. It was right in theory, but not by eye,” he explains.

The final design uses couplets, which are wrapped around the stone meaning viewers have to walk around it to read each one in order. The spacing between each couplet is the same throughout, but text size increases from top to bottom. As Andy Altmann, co-founder of Why Not (which worked with Young on the typography and layout) explains, working out what size the text should be and where it should go was a complicated process, and one which involved cutting edge software as well as old-fashioned scalpels and masking tape.

“We went up [to Yorkshire] and photographed the stone, guessed the final shape it would be, and then used Cinema 4D to draw it, apply the type and view it from different angles,” he says. “But the stone towards the bottom was really distorted, and you’re trying to apply it to a really strange shape, so in the end, the only way to do it was to cut out letters by hand and stick them on with masking tape.”

A digital mock-up created by Young & Why Not

“It was a really interesting fusion of low tech and very high tech digital processes,” says Young. “We couldn’t have done the project as it is today 20 years ago, without that digital data – it was the same with the Comedy Carpet – but it was also down to old school knowledge and skills,” he says. “We would do things precisely, measuring out with a spirit level, then it just wouldn’t look right, so we’d have to chop things out, refit and redraw them. For me, it was really fun seeing all these daily Apple Mac users up a ladder with a pencil and paper in the rain and wind. It was all about process, process, process,” he adds.

Some of the letters were applied using machinery, while others (those near the bottom where the stone is less uniform) were chiselled in by hand by a stonemason. Letters are carved in Eric Gill’s typeface Golden Cockerel, which Altmann says was chosen for its classic feel. “We tried quite a few fonts, to see how they all looked, and that one just felt right. It had that classic, Roman lettering, almost hand-carved look, which felt appropriate, and I was happy as Eric Gill’s also my favourite font designer,” he adds.

Setting the stone upright (it weights 13 tonnes) was also a complex task. A specialist company was brought in to drill a hole through the middle, and insert a pin measuring 18 inches in diametre, which was supported by a steel structure on the ground. A similar concrete sculpture was also erected in York, so the team could work on a mock-up in situ while the granite version remained in a workshop.

The finished sculpture is a beautiful piece of work, and an impressive work of art, design and engineering. Young says he is also hoping to make prints for the music department using the digital data and sketches produced during the project, and says the university, and Baker, have been pleased with the results.

“I was after a really simple totemic shape to do with someone’s favourite song. I didn’t realise it was going to get so complicated, but it’s worth the effort. The boulder’s not going to be going anywhere any time soon,” he says. “I think the choice of words is also a great message for a place that is educating young people – it’s about dreams, and imagination and treading on other people’s dreams softly,” he adds.

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