MEANWHILE ARTIST. recalling the work of Jamie McCullough

A shorter version of this article was published in MATTERS, Spring 2003, Issue 16

I looked up a recent edition of the London AtoZ and found, near to Westbourne Park Underground Station and the Trellick Tower, a place called Meanwhile Gardens. In older editions of the AtoZ, this site is not named. It was then a long stretch of waste ground between the Grand Union Canal and Elkstone Road the result of 60’s redevelopment. It reminded me of an acronym coined in the seventies to describe such non-places � SLOAP, space left over after planning.

Meanwhile Gardens strikes me as a strange name for any place. An adverb attached to a noun seems contradictory, a paradox; that this place is in a state of change, having a break, pondering itself, deciding what to do. The term is poetic. The conjunction of these two words ‘meanwhile’ and ‘gardens’ makes you think. Around 1977-78 the name Meanwhile Gardens became familiar to the people of the locality. Yet the place as such did not exist. There were no street signs or signboards naming it and it wasn’t named on any map. This was no civic exercise in the naming of new streets and places. Yet local people spoke of Meanwhile Gardens. It was passed around in conversations, the subject of a possible meeting place or a visit. It was part of the local vocabulary before it was a real place. It became named, as many places had got their names in earlier times, by use and function, out of myth and story. The name and the place, Meanwhile Gardens, were conjured up by an artist, Jamie McCullough.

I first got to know about Meanwhile Gardens from a book of that name published by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1978. I was captivated by the language and style of the writing and by the vision, imagination, energy and commitment of its author. I was not alone. One reviewer of the book wrote, “Meanwhile Gardens runs with a pace that left me breathless. It emits energy, disappointment and excitement with the zip of a Star Wars force beam ….. It is full of energy, fantasy and mass activity ….. It is packed with joy and sense.” (1) The book was written by McCullough and it was my introduction to him. Out of that wasteland he created, with the help of other professionals, skilled friends, local companies and businesses and the people of the neighbourhood, a landscaped garden playground for young and old and named it Meanwhile Gardens. In his foreword to the book Richard Mills of the Gulbenkian Foundation records, “One day some two years ago a young sculptor was crossing the bridge over the Grand Union Canal near Westbourne Park Station. Looking down, he saw a long, narrow strip of wasteland between the canal and the road running parallel to it. In his mind’s eye he began to re-shape it, using a bulldozer for hands. There would be an open air theatre, a skateboard rink, allotments, trees and flower beds, boats and boat building, and …. he pulled himself up short. Yes, there would have to be a bulldozer and someone must make a start. But he also saw that for the dream to come to life, it would need to be the local people’s creation, to build, develop, maintain and manage.” (2) This was the starting point for Meanwhile Gardens.

I was teaching on the Art and Social Contexts course at Dartington College of Arts and immediately put the book on the course reading list. I promoted it as an inspirational and practical read delivered in a poetic, imaginative prose. Half the slim volume was devoted to practical advice; how to negotiate city planning and legislation; how to hustle materials and how to manage the delicate process of gaining local community acceptance among much else good sense. A down-to-earth practical poet was Jamie McCullough.

I met him for the first time in 1980 when he called to see me at Dartington. He had begun a new project in a forest near Exeter. He needed support and we discussed the possibility of getting my students involved in the work. I found myself being drawn into his mesmerizing descriptions of his vision. His research for the work had included interviews with a range of people in the arts, in science and politics who had, in his words, �made new things happen.’ He had already completed part of a one and a quarter mile walk in the forest. But this was no ordinary scientific nature trail, nor was it a sculpture trail but a completely new way of experiencing a forest. Travelling through each of the loci, or stations, one is invited to allow the specific setting and heightened ambience of each to reconsider one’s own condition and maybe, just maybe, create the possibility of change. A mighty claim of course but this was, in simple terms, the aim of Beginner’s Way. A mnemonic garden and an adventure into one’s own mind and spirit through an artist’s sensitive, subtle and dramatic manipulation of a forest. It was something one could always return to in one’s mind.

I am in a long straight, downward-sloping tunnel, so low one has to stoop, through tightly planted spruce trees. It is dark and, with a feeling of expectancy, clamber over a dry stone wall with a stream at the end of it. However I find myself not released from the forest but trapped in a wild maze. There are no dead-ends and I find myself going round in circles. It’s fun but also frustrating. Then suddenly by chance I emerge into a moss-covered clearing surrounded by a birch ‘hedge’ and bracken. Nothing much grows here but etched onto the ground are two figures – one female the other male with a small thorn tree between them. Close by is a thick, twisted tree branch suggesting the form of a serpent. The path out of the clearing leads to an area of chaos – of fallen trees, creepers and irregular, rough ground. Somewhere I can hear the sound of running water. I move towards it and there, crossing a gorge, is a delicate, spiders-web of a suspension bridge. It is made of steel wire with a narrow walkway of wattle. It looks dangerous. I could stay in the area of chaos, go back to the bleak clearing and find another way to cross over or take a risk and use the bridge.

“The way ahead is a thread of maybe
Through the wilds of chance.” (3)

As I cross, the bridge moves with every step and change of weight. You have to be careful and it is scary. It is a relief to get across. With some purpose I follow the path downstream which leads to another crossing. This is in the form of two piers; one from each side of the bank which curve in opposite directions parallel to each other while the flow of the stream remains uninterrupted. Around a corner of bushes, ferns and silver birch there is a stone seat alongside a leat which flows into a dark tunnel. Under a flat stone is a box with a supply of candle boats and dry matches. I light one and place it on the water. It slowly drifts down the leat and disappears into the darkness of the tunnel. It is a simple act of faith that the light still burns as I never saw it go out. The path follows on down and merges with the main stream so that, without being aware of it, I am walking on water. Slices of tree trunks have been placed in the middle of the stream. Following the twists and turns of the stream, with steep banks on both sides and the sound of waterfalls behind, there is a thrilling feeling of being a child again walking down the middle of a stream. With low overhanging foliage overhead the stream stills and gathers into broadening pool at the end of which is a large, vertical slab of wood. I move across to it and realise that it blocks my way forward. I don’t quite know what to do but as I touch the slab it moves slightly. I give it a push and it lowers to provide a bridge. Once across it slowly reverts to the vertical. There’s no going back! Further downstream there is a tunnel cut into the steep bank so I leave the stream and enter it. It is pitch black inside and I move through slowly, carefully touching the sides and sliding one foot in front of the other. It comes to an abrupt halt and I climb a ladder to emerge into the daylight on a hillside with steps cut into it. At the top of the one hundred steps is a cave cut into the shoulder of the hill with a great stone fireplace and curved benches on either side of it. There is kindling and wood to light a fire. This it seems is the end – a place of rest and reflection. From here I look out to the west over the mixed trees and rough contours of the forest which stimulates all sorts of imaginings as I grapple with the thoughts and emotions engendered by the experience of the trail. This, briefly, was Beginner’s Way.

As with Meanwhile Gardens, McCullough had an idea and had begun working on it but soon found that such a huge undertaking required much other support. The only finance at this stage was his bank overdraft. This was a working forest and the community was the Forestry Commission staff who worked it. A formal organization had to be set up to be able to attract funding. I became Chair of a board which included representatives of the Forestry Commission and South West Arts. Friends and supporters of his work formed a loosely knit support group. We needed a name for the organization and, always the poet, McCullough made a few suggestions; Wildharbour, Gentle Place, Dreamtime Builders, Paradise Construction, Deep Tracks. We became the Wildharbour Society and some substantial funding was received from the Carnegie Foundation, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Elmhirst Trust. This last is the funding arm of Dartington Hall and the then Chairman, Maurice Ash, made a personal contribution to the funds. One of my students worked on the project full-time for a year. Of course, without the wholehearted support of the Forestry Commission of the South West of England, Beginner’s Way could not have existed and in a letter of January 1981 the Assistant Conservator, Martin Orram, wrote, “It will be a stimulus not only to our visitors to Exeter Forest but to other foresters and artists who may be inspired to launch out in new ways elsewhere.”

I ‘did’ Beginner’s Way several times and can attest that it provided a unique and memorable experience each time. It was especially rewarding when I did it in the company of a friend. However I incurred McCullough’s wrath when he found out that I had taken a coach-load of my students to it. This was wholly contrary to his view as to how it should be used. He refused to have it advertised or promoted in any way. Those who walked it for the first time did so by chance and then came back again with friends. Its existence was passed on by word of mouth. It is for this reason that Beginner’s Way did not become widely known and McCullough’s role in creating this very special artwork went virtually unrecorded. It doesn’t exist now. Such a thing requires a lot of maintenance and funds did not exist to do it but, during its active life, thousands of people walked it which in itself brought about its demise. “Life is full of little journeys,” Henry Miller said. We shift direction and move on. Beginner’s Way was not a way for beginners but a possible way to contemplate beginning again in a new direction.

“Thinking is the waste of time between experiencing something and knowing what to do about it.” McCullough used this quote from Edward de Bono in the written proposal for Beginner’s Way. It was part built at the time and though the total concept did not change he hoped that users of the first part of it might respond with ideas for its completion. I don’t know if this happened. He wrote, “People tend to forget why they need to use reason …. It simply provides a quiet metaphorical space to move around in; a haven from the pressures of direct experience to which we can go at any time, move quietly about and return with a different perspective on things……… Suppose that a different kind of metaphorical space could exist, one that gave you the same freedom to move about in an equally peaceful haven, but one more suited to ‘I and you’ rather than to ‘this, that and the other.’ One where ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty and change formed its natural structure and yet the structure was simple enough and beautiful, maybe, as well. If in your mind you could enter this space, move yourself through it with ease and step out again into the ordinary world with a fresh view and a fresh attitude, would you use it?” (4) McCullough used to say that, when you came out of the tunnel to confront the steep slope and the one hundred steps, the dreaming bit was now over and you had to get on with the hard work.

Not long before I left Dartington McCullough walked into my house and invited me to listen to a tape that he had with him. I heard some strange, discordant noises of which I could make little sense. He revealed that they were recordings he had made of the sounds of sap rising and falling in different types of trees and that he planned to create a symphony of such sounds and have it played in a forest in Scotland. He was off again.

I moved to Glasgow School of Art in 1986 and soon thereafter became a trustee of the Scottish Sculpture Trust. Part of its interests lay in encouraging links between art and the sciences and, to this end, it set up a sub-section of the Trust with the title, ASCENT – art, science, engineering and technology. In 1990, with a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council, the Trust advertised, across the UK, for an artist to carry out a trial, four-month residency collaborating with the Department of Civil Engineering at Strathclyde University. McCullough was one of the applicants and the selection committee was unanimous that he should be appointed. He had already designed and built bridges at Meanwhile Gardens, at Eton College and Beginner’s Way and, as was later discovered, had a natural penchant for working with structures and their associated mathematics. The residency gave him the opportunity to explore his ideas in the professional world of engineering. He was already “concerned with lightweight, economical structures” and was looking for “evermore flexible ways of finding stability in structure, ‘stretchiest’ in tension……” (5)

Iain McLeod, Professor of Civil Engineering at Strathclyde University and a trustee of ASCENT, was an enthusiastic and generous host for the residency. The department offered McCullough sympathetic staff, computer resources and an essential environment for research in which practicing and academic engineers gave space and respect for an artist. McLeod has written, “Structural engineers tend to work with systems which are rectangular – horizontal beams and slabs sitting on vertical columns and walls. Jamie had a deep understanding of systems which are curved. He could sense the way that forces would flow in three dimensions. One would expect a sculptor to be concerned only with physical models but this was not so in Jamie’s case. He had a very good mathematical and scientific background and during the time that he worked at Strathclyde he became quite expert in the use of structural analysis packages and in computer drafting software. It was this combination of abilities which made his research work so valuable.” (6)

By the end of the four months the grant had run out but McLeod was convinced that something special had been begun and he invited McCullough to continue to use the facilities of his department. This extension allowed the research to get to the point where leading civil engineering firms in the UK had begun to get interested in his work. He had developed a concept of a load net for bridges and one firm offered him �10,000 to continue the work. Since the offer involved surrendering the results he decided to forgo the much-needed money (he was back living off an overdraft) and Strathclyde University took out a patent on the concept.

During this time he was involved with one or two other projects. The civil engineering department at the University of Glasgow invited him to design a bridge over the River Kelvin at its playing fields on the outskirts of Glasgow. The bridge was to be designed such that students would be able to build it under his supervision. He proposed a bridge made up of short timbers – a copse of the same trees would be planted at either end so that, in the future, the bridge could readily be repaired. It would thus be self-renewing. Regrettably this project did not go ahead. The Glasgow architects, Page and Park, invited him to join them in proposals for a Buddhist Retreat on Holy Island just off the island of Arran. But again it came to nothing. Later he wrote, “We all thought the brief overcrowded, the island unduly and, in the end, decided not to enter the competition. But something in it triggered one of the underlying images that seemed to drive me on as an artist and on the closing date I produced a sketch for a floating harbour,….. Whatever else is to be built, the island needs a harbour. We want to use the calming of the waves as a functioning image of the calming of the mind.” (7)

McLeod was determined to continue the collaboration with McCullough and sought further funding. In what must be an historic first, the Science and Engineering Research Council awarded the University of Strathclyde a grant to employ an artist to work in the civil engineering department for twelve months. McLeod wanted to explore the ways in which McCullough approached the development of ideas to see if these could be used in the education of his students. It is no secret that courses for civil engineering students rarely offer the opportunity for creative thinking with regard to design. Yet civil engineers contribute enormously to our environment in bridges, roads, motorways and other parts of the infrastructure of cities and the countryside. It was decided that McCullough would work at the University for four months each year for three years during which time he would collaborate with McLeod and other staff on the processes of creativity in relation to the teaching of civil engineering. This allowed for the gradual development of the research while McCullough took up other opportunities including works in Bristol and Cumbria. His ecological concerns had drawn him to a new challenge – an exploration of the possibilities of using sculpture in the oxygenation of slow moving and polluted rivers – and he began working with engineers from Newcastle University on a river at Quaking Houses in Co. Durham poisoned by the mineral wastes of mining. The project had been set up by Lucy Milton of Helix Arts in Sunderland. McCullough, it seems, fell out with the main engineer on the project and left, not before however making important contributions to the artist’s brief for the project. His time there and his work was not wasted for it was in the investigation of the problem presented by the polluted river at Quaking Houses that his processes, as an artist, of problem-solving were more clearly revealed. Strathclyde University made a video of him at work entitled, “Innovative Design” (8) which is now used in the teaching of design in the civil engineering department. McCullough wrote, “The problem for civil engineering students is that they have learned about structure from books and think about structures from the outside, ….. It is quite common on building sites for a labourer to know instinctively what size of beam will be required, while the young engineer has to go away and look it up in his books.” (9) He proposed that there was a need for students to learn to get inside a problem through an understanding of materials; to develop a practical, hands-on facility and to play around with models. All of which of course are natural approaches to making used by artists. McLeod says “The idea of working to get ‘inside’ a system is catching on; I have heard our students talk about ‘McCulloughing’ a difficult problem.”

In 1994 McCullough was invited to present a paper to the Institute of Structural Engineers. In “Aspects of a Sense of Place,” (10) he asserts, among other things, that the appearance of a system such as a bridge is not the only thing that should be considered in relation to its form. Some places make you feel good; other places make you want to move away and that there are some absolute principles which govern the reaction of people to places.

At the end of his contract with Strathclyde, in 1996, McCullough wrote up his experiences and findings over the five years in a report entitled, “Skyhook Underneath.” (11) It joins whimsy with hard-nosed science and mathematics in an attempt to capture the imagination of the reader. It begins with a long section on the need for all of us to discover and use our creativity, giving some methods of approach on how this can be done. It moves on to describe his various researches into structures on a number of different projects and ends with some of his conclusions.

There is a character in the folklore of the USA called Johnny Appleseed. As a child I was given a small book about him and his image and story have remained strong in my memory. He had a mission he had taken upon himself, which was to plant as many apple trees as he could all over his country. He wore rough, outdoor, country clothes, carried a knapsack and moved from place to place having no settled home. Soon after meeting Jamie McCullough I would see him in my mind and describe him to others as a kind of Johnny Appleseed. He wore clothes for the outdoors, carried a knapsack, kept moving from place to place and didn’t seem to have a settled home to go back to. He didn’t carry apple seeds in his knapsack but the seeds of ideas. He moved around the country and sought out places where he could find the right place and the right people to enable him to plant his ideas. Some of them failed but others grew to glorious fruition. Some of them were great soaring adventures, full of risk, the kind of ideas that many of us have from time to time and discard as being, if not impossible, then just too difficult to get off the ground. Not so McCullough. He would have half a dozen going at the one time and worry away at them phoning and writing to key people here, trying to raise money there, while carrying on researching and developing the ideas. Most of his projects needed a support group and various levels of collaboration. But collaboration was one thing at which McCullough did not excel. He was essentially a loner and he was driven by his ideas and the need to see them come to fruition. He had to leave the Durham project for this reason and it carried on without him.

Jamie McCullough who died, too young, in 1998, studied sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art. He rarely exhibited in galleries and therefore his work rarely attracted critical comment and discussion in the arts pages of newspapers and art magazines. This remains a problem for artists who choose to work outside the gallery/museum nexus. The art critics are few indeed who are willing to take the time and make the journeys to write about this art which exists in the wider public domain. Regrettably even fewer are equipped to do so.

Meanwhile Gardens today is not quite what McCullough created. It was redesigned some years ago. There are no allotments, theatre, flowerbeds or boat building now. Trees there are, now wonderfully mature, well-maintained grass and a very popular skateboard rink. I asked some people in the gardens what they called the place. A skateboarder said �We call it Meanwhile and by the way there’s Meanwhile Two at Royal Oak.� Everyone knew it as Meanwhile. The sign on the gate says Meanwhile Gardens and across the road there is Meanwhile Surgery the local health centre. Rather ominously there was another small notice on the gate thanking people for their efforts in fighting off an attempt to turn the place over to developers and that there was still a need to remain vigilant. I do not know if the threat is still there but it would be a tragedy if this beautiful, functional and well-used little urban lung were to be obliterated by building over it.

I visited Meanwhile Gardens on a balmy and sunny late autumn day entering down a spiral stairway from the canal bridge. The skateboard rink was full of young and old users and people were strolling about. I reflected how wonderful it was that one could create a new place and name it so poetically. Jamie McCullough did that here.


  1. Keith Smith, CHILDS PLAY, Vol 5 No 8, Feb ’79
  2. MEANWHILE GARDENS, pub. Gulbenkian Foundation. London ’78
  3. J. McCullough, unpublished plans and written proposals for BEGINNERS WAY.
  4. Ibid
  5. J.McCullough SKYHOOK UNDERNEATH (see below)
  6. Iain McLeod, unpublished memoir of J.McC, 8th April ’98
  7. J. McCullough, SKYHOOK UNDERNEATH � an artist tangles with structural engineering, pp22, unpublished
  8. University of Strathclyde, Dept of Civil Engineering
  9. Ibid as 7 above
  10. THE STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, Vol 70, No 22, pp388-9
  11. Ibid as 7 above

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