Published Date: 14 July 2007
By Roger Ratcliffe
With Britain's outdoor festival season about to start, Roger Ratcliffe reports on a Yorkshire arts group that has become a permanent fixture on the circuit.
From Glastonbury to the Cambridge and "V" festivals, as well as smaller but no less popular summer events along the way, they are finalising the lists of attractions.
One name keeps cropping up on the fliers, programmes and posters, which at first glance sounds like just another solo performer with an off-beat and – in all likelihood – made-up surname.
Never come across anyone called Jart before.
Who is this Hugh Jart, then?
The answer will be instantly known to veterans of the Glastonbury mud, as well as thousands of others who have attended festivals the length and breadth of the country for the past decade. Hugh Jart stands for "Huge Art", a community art group that rolls out on tour each summer with gigantic canvases and free pots of paint.
Based in Baildon, Hugh Jart is now getting ready to take its mobile murals on the road again for the 13th successive year, with the same simple belief that if you give even the most ham-fisted person a paint brush they can discover a hitherto unknown artistic eye.
Often people can paint whatever they like. It can be freeform squiggles or Jackson Pollock-like splashes. It can even be something that's half-recognisable, usually to a pre-determined theme like self-portraits, animals, flowers, hearts and lips. Or they can vent their feelings with colourful graffiti, or each fill in a piece of a vast vertical jigsaw.
"We do try come up with a novel idea each time," says Hugh Jart's founder and administrator, Charlie Charles. "For example, we got kids to paint each other's face, and then we filled in the background. Another idea might be that we divide up a canvas into a floral pattern, and everyone is invited to come and fill in a petal or a flower.
"What really makes the difference is that people paint with other people. This is a communal activity, a shared experience. Painting can be such a solitary thing, even lonely. Hugh Jart is all about bringing people together."
Which is probably one of the reasons why it's so popular with outdoor festival-goers, who are almost by definition a gregarious lot.
Hugh Jart was born at the Forest Fayre, Forest of Dean, in 1994, the moment of conception being when Charlie found that his son and a few other children had been invited to paint on the side of an old ambulance.
"They were really in their element, and an idea was created. I thought it'd be a really exciting project to bring together not only children but also adults to produce larger-than-life collaborative works
The first mural they did was at Ilkley Carnival the following year and was, by later standards, quite small – an 18ft by 8ft canvas donated by a local stage set production company. Although many canvases are still about the same length, with a height roughly related to the distance that the tallest human being can reach, others might be 40ft long and be so high that participants require ladders and scaffolding.
Central to the concept of Hugh Jart is that people with artistic backgrounds volunteer to assist those who haven't held a paint brush since schooldays. In addition to a hard-core of helpers, art students phone up to ask if they can get involved and, for their troubles, sometimes get free festival tickets – the Glastonbury ones being worth several times more than their weight in gold.
Since participation in painting murals is free, Hugh Jart get their income from fees paid by the festival organisers – they have become a "name" attraction in their own right.
They have completed an average of 15 huge canvases a year all over the country, spreading out to festivals run by local councils – places like Portsmouth, Islington, Gloucester, Nottingham, Salisbury, Blackpool, Leeds and Barnsley.
At Bradford City's football ground, there is also a 20ft x 6ft mural entitled "Goal!" featuring 57 cheering children with their teachers and someone who looks suspiciously like David Beckham, painted by two classes of children drawn from different faiths and cultures.
Wishing to expand the concept beyond gigantic murals, they soon started producing massive 3D creations on which people could paint. One of the earliest was the Hugh Jart Maze at Glastonbury in 1997, when they constructed a network of passages using 600 8ft x 4ft boards, all painted with an environmental theme. Unfortunately, they got only half of it up before an overnight storm blew it down.
For the V98 and V99 Festivals, Charlie oversaw the creation of a weird farmyard – larger than life, of course – featuring a mad cow, a cloned sheep with a "baaaa code", and what they described as a "p***ed off pig".
One of Hugh Jart's most memorable 3D constructions at Glastonbury was the word "LOVE", constructed from maze boards and standing 16ft high, on which festival-goers were invited to provide the artwork. Unfortunately, some of the more exuberant participants climbed to the top, and it was deemed a hazard.
From an enterprise with roots in the mud of alternative music festivals, an unexpected twist to the Hugh Jart story is that they're now hired by multi-national companies for promotional events. Microsoft whisked them off to the French Riviera. They were flown out to the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix to construct two huge murals with spectators and even racing drivers. Other bookings have come from Nokia, Virgin and Land-Rover.
At the beginning of July, the National Railway Museum, York will be unveiling a different work of art, made by Hugh Jart – a 22ft long futuristic train which they have designed with 40 year-six school children. The train will be on display for one year.
Back on the festival circuit, Charlie Charles admits that sometimes the quality of painting is not wonderful and some participants have had a couple of beers too many.
"But we've also produced some fantastic stuff and people love it. At many festivals people stand in our queues for hours to get their hands on the paints. We're enabling thousands of people to be artistic who wouldn't otherwise get the chance."
Hugh Jart will be taking its huge canvas painting screens and other artwork to the following events this spring and summer: July 26-29, Cambridge Folk Festival; September 7-9, Bestival, Isle of Wight. Website: www.hughjart.co.uk