Last weekend East Village welcomed two more special residents into the fold. Jonny and Flora joined 20-foot-tall topiary statues Dot and Little Joe (more commonly known as The Sweepers) in their new home at the former London 2012 Olympic Village. We caught up with Mike de Butts, one the visionaries behind the unique sculptures and co-founder of Shipshape Arts.
First of all, who are Shipshape Arts?
Shipshape Arts is our company name. We usually go by our trading name PirateTechnics, which we came up with after we set fire to a huge pirate ship in the middle of a lake with pyrotechnics, fireworks, and hundreds of fire-performers and fire lanterns. Headed by myself and Beatrix Eden, we have a core crew of about eight dedicated pirates, but often have up to 30 shipmates lending a hand. We’ve designed, fabricated, installed, and sometimes ignited large bespoke structures for a huge range of clients, from Glastonbury to John Lewis and the Royal Horticultural Society to London’s Southbank Centre.
How did you first start out making large scale sculptures?
We got our first break at Secret Garden Party, where some of us had been involved as fire performers for a number of years. The organisers wanted to bring a little piece of the Burning Man Festival back from the Nevada desert and commissioned us to build something flammable as a backdrop for our fire shows. Since then they’ve had us back each year to build their centrepieces and have always encouraged us to take on yet more challenging builds.
How did you come to create East Village’s latest residents?
After the success of our giant straw fox in 2011, the Southbank Centre had us back to create large outdoor sculptures for their yearly summer celebrations. They wanted something organic and green for last year’s Festival of Neighbourhood. They were looking for impact and because they’d other green-fingered pieces elsewhere, we chose to create some giant topiary figures in various scenes that portray neighbourliness.
The Sweepers, Dot and Little Joe, were inspired by the Blitz Spritz in the wake of the London Riots, a poignant moment in the neighbourhood of London. These figures represent taking responsibility for your own actions and surroundings, like the Italian proverb: “If every man would sweep his own doorstep the city would soon be clean.”
And how does this process differ from making sculptures for Secret Garden Party, which ultimately end up on fire?
People often ask whether we are upset to burn our creations, and are sometimes surprised to find that we love it. After all, there’re many other established forms of temporary art such as ice-carving or sand sculpture that keenly express the transient nature of all things… but also we all love fire!
Did you know these sculptures would be moved to East Village after the Festival of Neighbourhood?
Get Living London approached us after seeing the sculptures on the Southbank. They loved the figures and knew that the neighbourhood theme was very apt for the East Village.
It’s a privilege to be associated with the Olympic Legacy. We think they look great in their new home, and we hope the neighbourhood that grows around them will love them too. These are our first touring pieces, and will be looking for new homes after their time in the East Village. They were built to last and designed to be free standing in almost any space.
If money was no object, what would you love to create next?
What’s your next project going to be and where can we see it?
We’re doing a small light installation in Alvaston in Derby. We’ve created a star field that looks like the Plough from one viewpoint only, just as Ursa Major does from Planet Earth. In winter, we generally work on designs for the coming year and prefabricate things ready for spring installations. Nothing is confirmed yet, but we expect the next major installation to be at the Southbank Centre. It has become somewhat of a tradition for something of ours to loom over Waterloo Bridge, after the Urban Fox, Under The Baobab and most recently The Sweepers.