Diglis Oil Basin on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is one of those industrial sites you can see a thousand times before you really notice it. A large concrete square, the basin is crossed with a white bridge and Manda Graham paid it little attention as she searched for the perfect location for a new Canal & River Trust-sponsored artwork. “We didn’t have a site in mind so I ended up walking the whole length of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal looking at all the walls,” she says. “Then I came back to Worcester and the oil basin and thought ‘Hang on a second, there’s a concrete wall that’s dying to be painted’. That often happens. You can spend weeks going in circles looking for the right site and then suddenly you discover something was staring you in the face the whole time.”
Manda was looking for a site for a new mural by celebrated street artist Lucy McLauchlan, which would be the final artwork of The Ring art project, which celebrates the reconnection of the canals around Droitwich and Worcester. ‘Opening The Floodgates’ is a vast black-and-white mural that celebrates the canal’s rich ecology of zebra mussels, sponges and lichen. The mural is reflected in the water of the basin, and over the two years it remains in situ will change as the water level rises and falls, creating an instant conversation piece in this often-overlooked location.
“It draws people’s attention to the industrial heritage of the area and the oil dock, which is something people can pass every day without actually seeing as it’s so much a part of their everyday life,” says Manda. “Lucy has now drawn attention to it and local people are talking about it.”
Lucy created the piece after using an underwater camera to see life inside the basin. She has an instinctive love of water, with a studio based on the canal in Birmingham. “I’ve witnessed the canal’s lure as an escape and quiet space for many people,” says the artist who has been praised by Banksy and whose work has appeared on Chinese billboards, Gambian huts, Red Square in Moscow and a lighthouse in Norway. “My immediate environment is a huge inspiration in my work. From my previous project painting murals along the canal-side in Birmingham, I got to know the waterway by canoe and being on the water gave me a different and new appreciation of the canal.”
To create the piece, Lucy and Manda worked from a floating pontoon, and depended on locals and Canal & River Trust volunteers for support. “They [volunteers] have been lovely,” says Manda. “We’ve had to use their boats to get back and forwards from the pontoon, and local people came along to watch and talk to Lucy as she does it. Groups of boys on bikes would lean over the edge and chat to her while she was working.” Lucy began working with some idea of what it would ultimately look like but then adapted the mural in response to the conversations she was having with local people. “She likes to work with the space and also local interest,” explains Manda. “She will complete the design on site.”
The mural took around a week to complete, with Lucy working freestyle using chalk for the outline and then rollers. The size of the project meant she sometimes struggled to get a sense of its overall design from up close, so Manda was despatched to the other side of the dock to take pictures and then send them to Lucy via WhatsApp. In this way, the piece was quickly completed.
For Tim Eastop, the executive producer of the Canal & River Trust’s Arts On The Waterways programme, Lucy’s mural is one of the ways the Trust is exploring the sometimes problematic but occasionally fruitful relationship between the canals and street artists. “We are trying to grapple with the whole ecology of street artists,” he says of the complicated issue. “A lot of it is dull and anti-social but in some places it’s part of the street furniture and if it’s done well we are able to embrace it.”
When appropriate, the Trust has commissioned other streets artists to work on the Trust’s land. Eastop celebrates examples such as the Oxford Canal Mural Project, which has created a series of lively murals along bridges on the Oxford Canal. The Trust has also recently commissioned a group of powerful portraits of women refugees along the Birmingham system working in conjunction with the Ikon Gallery.
“That is social street art,” says Tim. “Lucy’s piece is also very exciting. The majority of people in the area really love that this strange space, the oil basin, is having something done to its usually quite dull concrete walls. I think it could be used as a canvas for further work over time.”
Find out more about Lucy McLauchlan work on her website. The Ring is part of the Canal & River Trust’s Arts on the Waterways programme. To find out more, visit The Ring website or follow @TheRingWorcs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.