02 October 2023
‘Listen to the Past,
Talk about the Present,
Look to the Future,’ in
conversation in York
Two of us have been staying for the last few days off Scarcroft Road in York, close to the junction with Bishopthorpe Road, with its busy and bustling parades of shops, restaurants and cafés.
‘Conversation Piece’ is a visually striking sculpture by the sculptor Ailsa Magnus and has been standing at the corner of Bishopthorpe Road and Scarcroft Road, close to these shops, since 2010. It tells any number of imaginary stories.
‘Conversation Piece’ was created by Ailsa Magnus when she was commissioned to create a sculpture representing the past, present and future of the community in this area of York.
Ailsa Magnus, who recently relocated from North Yorkshire to her native Scotland, has worked on many public commissions throughout the UK and has had several residencies. Her commissions include the glazed stoneware Ibstock Landmark Sculpture (1998), and carved brick wall reliefs for Chinese Ethnic Housing, Hull (1996) and for Henshaw’s, Conyngham Hall Arts and Crafts Centre (1998).
The three figures in ‘Conversation Piece’ on the corner Bishopthorpe Road and Scarcroft Road in York are a woman, a man, and a child, three ‘modern day guardians’ paying homage to the figures found on walls around the city. They represent the past, present and future development of this area in York.
The woman is a sweet maker holding a Terry’s Chocolate Orange to represent the past. She represents the past, as the factory closed many years ago. Many of its once large workforce lived in the area and worked in the Terry’s factory further up Bishopthorpe Road.
The man is a professional modern-day worker, and represents the present community. He is doing his shopping on his way home from work, clutching his bag and briefcase. His facial expression has been described variously as fretful, overworked, quizzical and bemused.
Ailsa Magnus asks us to imagine him as Michael, a Micklegate resident, at 5:30 on a Friday evening who has just finished another busy week at work. He stops to pick up a few bits and pieces from the shops on Bishopthorpe Road before heading home. He chats as he goes to his partner of 15 years, on his hands-free mobile phone. They discuss the day’s events and plan their weekend ahead.
The child, of course, represents the future and is holding a plant or a tree sapling, a symbol of the future.
The inscription on the stone base reads: ‘Listen to the Past, Talk about the Present, Look to the Future.’ Around it are bricks bearing shapes that also have inscriptions – fragments of conversations or questions – submitted by local residents. They range from the general ‘What if?’ to the more specific ‘Can we stop global warming?’
These shapes around the base are based on a popular 19th century sweet created by Terry’s, which featured conversation starters. They appealed to the Victorians, and someone who was tongue-tied could always offer their companion a little piece of sugar paste printed with a suitable inscription: ‘How do you flirt?’ or ‘Can you Polka?’ or ‘Love Me.’
Ailsa Magnus explains that the Terry’s Conversation Lozenge ‘was a very early version of texting or Twitter’ – and she set up a Twitter account so local people could engage with the project and tweet suggestions for a text on a 21st century ‘Conversation Lozenges.’
‘Perhaps an idea will come to you while sitting on the bus, or walking the dog,’ she suggests.