This spring Ignite Yorkshire and Sheffield Museums Trust worked with Will Rea, an illustrator, muralist and sign-writer based in Sheffield. Will worked with Sheffield Museums’ Young Makers group on a six-week programme of sessions exploring symbols of Sheffield. From this he created three large illustrated panels and an exhibition of the group’s work. Will also worked with the Museum Youth group at Kelham Island on illustrations for flyers, tote bags and other graphics for their Museum Lates event in March.
Eleanor Chesterton caught up with Will about the project and how heritage has come to play an important role in his work…
Eleanor: What was your work with Museum Youth and how did you find it?
Will: I initially thought I would be a learning assistant on the project – so we didn’t actually pitch the fact that I would be leading a whole research project until I sat down at the first meeting to talk about quoting and things like that. It was quite exciting early on that I wasn’t going to be a person helping on something else; I was going to be able to write a project where I could lead the direction that we would go in but also have it open enough for the young people to collaborate and come up with an outcome that was way more imaginative and way more in depth than I could’ve anticipated.
The project itself was very rewarding in the sense that when you’re working with other people you’re teaching them, inspiring them, helping them think about creative pathways, think about heritage pathways. It’s the best outcome as you’ve had sixteen young brains working on this project and it ended up being way more in depth than I anticipated.
We actually had one of the young people say how they were going to take GCSE art because of the project that I taught and was a really nice feeling! I think when it’s something you’ve genuinely helped someone or inspired someone it’s a much nicer emotion than your own success.
In the end it wasn’t about the fee or the experience I would get from it, it was more the fact that I was able to take on more of a continued project that was in an area that I was genuinely really passionate about. It was nice to come back and meet the same faces, and see the students grow in terms of creativity. they were learning with me and I was also learning as well – they were teaching me about the history of the places I now live in, it was really exciting!
Eleanor: What caused you to become interested in industrial heritage?
Will: I’ve always had a passion for history and learning about the things that existed before I existed. In a way, from moving to Sheffield, I kind of became a little bit fixated with the heritage of the city I was living in.
I’ve always had an interest in the people that lived before us, and the things that they did, and how they did them. Feats of engineering and technology, and how humans have always been clever enough to make things easier for themselves, to make things, to build things, to create things. Its mainly down to me being inquisitive of where things come from and how things have been made, how things were made.
Eleanor: How did you come to work in illustration?
When I was growing up, my grandad was a mountaineer in the lake district, and he used to record some of his routes and climbs by doing sort of little sketches and drawings. I used to always be in awe of these sketches, and I didn’t know that there was a job that involved someone who creates things and get paid to do it. When I left secondary education, I went on to do illustration at Sheffield Hallam University, so I finally got to the point where I properly specialised in the subject area I was most passionate about.
I was also out in the community of Sheffield showing people I could draw things, I could paint things, I could design things, I could animate things, so I ended up doing quite a lot of external work for local clients. I started with co-working spaces and cafes doing some sign writing and whiteboard art, and then it became a kind of organic snowball effect. Sheffield is probably the only place it could’ve happened because it has such a community feeling.
I then worked on a big mural for Orchard Square, relating to the history of the site but also Sheffield, and brighten up an overlooked corner. My career kept growing naturally, just through giving a good impression and leaving a good example of what you’re capable of.
Eleanor: What was your thought process behind combining the two?
Will: My way into illustration is to approach it in an engineering, technical illustration way. I do think technically so I think naturally, technical illustration and engineering illustration are born from the heritage and history of the industry that existed in the country or in the world.
I’ve managed to find a really nice way of working with museums and heritage sites and clients that are relating to history. It’s been really positive to see that it’s been leading onto the next thing in the same field – I’m not doing the same thing for everyone, I’m enjoying the fact that I can use my illustrative style for multiple heritage sites around South Yorkshire and further afield.
Eleanor: What are your plans for the future involving heritage?
Will: I’m passionate about the projects that I’ve done [with young people] and I think there is conversations about potentially continuing these types of projects with different pots of funding, pitching it to other places in the city and showing them the model of what we’ve been doing in separate areas. We could do it again with different groups and do different projects.
A lot of the murals that I paint I work with heritage sites, and even if I’m working with something that isn’t a heritage site I still like to look into the heritage of the location because the way I work I have a bright colourful approach, but I also like to reference the history of the location. The things that have been created, or invented, or made in that place.
I didn’t think it would be such a heritage focussed interview, but it has made me realise actually how intertwined my career and passions are to heritage. When working with these kinds of projects, you get young people to see a different part of the places where they grew up and places where they live.