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Peter Walker, the artist who makes light work

by
14 April 2023

The sculptor’s son et lumière draws many to cathedrals, Susan Gray finds

Luxmuralis

The Angels are Coming, by Luxmuralis, on the exterior of Peterborough Cathedral, in 2021

The Angels are Coming, by Luxmuralis, on the exterior of Peterborough Cathedral, in 2021

ON A blustery, drizzly Friday evening, two days before the start of British Summer Time, a queue snakes from Exeter Cathedral’s west-front image screen, across the square towards the Ivy Café, waiting for entry to the cathedral at 6.30 p.m. for Luxmuralis’s Renaissance light show.

Inside, concealed behind a black curtain taped in front of the altar under the organ loft, the sculptor Peter Walker, Luxmuralis’s artistic director, is overseeing the show from his laptop.

Earlier, we met in the nave, which had been emptied of chairs for the light show. Apart from a Winnebago-style coffee truck, the longest medieval stone vault in the world looked as it must have in the 14th century.

Having spent seven years working with Lichfield Cathedral — five of them as artist-in-residence — Mr Walker has become the go-to practitioner for churches seeking accessible contemporary art interjections. Brought up in Lichfield, Mr Walker credits the recently retired Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, for nurturing the collaboration of his art and places of worship.

“I remember the cathedral from childhood, when it seemed to be for only select people, and not for someone from a working-class background like me,” Mr Walker says. “But Dean Adrian was committed to swinging open those big wooden doors, and bringing contemporary life into the cathedral. Through the Association of English Cathedrals [chaired by Dorber from 2015 to 2022], he championed ways for cathedrals to attract greater numbers of people.”

Mr Walker says that his bronze statue of Lichfield’s patron, St Chad, standing at three metres tall, has become a symbol of the city since its 2021 unveiling. “After seven years working with the cathedral, I chose the south-east corner of the Close to position the statue, because I knew that’s where 97 per cent of visitors enter. Now that location is photographed as much as the cathedral’s west front. The artwork encourages people to come in, and the saint greets you. The saint is going on the same journey as you.”

A pilgrim journey is Mr Walker’s summary of his relationship with faith. Church did not feature in his childhood, he says — “we were working-class.” Being on the edge of faith, but open to the possibility of going further in, is a position resonating with the thousands who view his work. “Most people in cathedrals aren’t there for religion or art, they’re there because it’s a tourist building. I steer away from using the A- word or the F-word.”

 

BECOMING a sculptor in his late twenties, Mr Walker followed a non-institutional path to his fine-art career. Dropping out of a degree in social sciences, in Manchester, after one year, he moved to be with his girlfriend, now his wife, Kathryn, who was studying at Falmouth College of Art.

Peter WalkerPeace Doves in Liverpool Cathedral

He rented a studio in Penryn for £4 a week, and his work attracted an Arts Council grant to fund a first exhibition, and he held workshops and gave sessions in schools. “I never had a proper job, but I was never on the dole.”

Returning to the couple’s home county of Staffordshire, Mr Walker took a one-year course in sculpture construction: “The first rule of sculpture is it always falls down.” In 2009, a commission from the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum for a piece celebrating the 300th anniversary of Lichfield’s most famous literary figure led — alongside a more traditional sculpture — to Mr Walker’s first son et lumière (a form of night-time show originating in France and using light projections with synchronised sound to illuminate buildings with tailored imagery).

“I didn’t know such a thing existed. The museum director had seen a son et lumière in France, and wanted a light show. I had no idea about the technology, but we did a two-hour show on the outside of the building, attended by 2000 people.” Mr Walker’s sculpture The Formation of Poetry, a series of bronze book pages with single words of text inspired by Johnson’s dictionary, was Lichfield’s first new piece of public art for 50 years.

After the museum-walls event, Mr Walker’s first internal light show at Lichfield Cathedral, in 2015, led to the formation of the Luxmuralis artistic collaboration. “Lichfield had never experienced an internal light show before. Every inch of the building was covered in overlapping images. Because I understood the usage of the building, I could highlight the building itself as artwork — the creation of shapes and forms chosen by the artists and craftsmen who had gone before.”

 

CATHEDRALS nationwide now host light shows as part of their events programmes. Renaissance is a touring show, which illuminated Salisbury Cathedral before coming to Exeter. St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, hosted Space, the Universe and Everything in February (News, 10 February), and will be the venue for a new work next year. “At St-Martin-in-the-Fields, the work started outside on the walls and portico, and the end-point was the nave and altar, with people watching, sitting on pews. It was artistically beautiful.”

Light shows in historic places of worship underline the ability of sacred spaces to mediate universal concerns, he says: “Space, the Universe and Everything starts outside the church on the edge of space, and then it moves inside taking in themes of spirituality and liturgy, and then surveys life on earth. The conclusion is, ‘What a wonderful world!’”

He goes on to say that light shows bring to life broad themes that would be challenging in other media. “I would not choose space or Renaissance as subjects for sculpture.” And the lack of overt references in light shows allows audiences of diverse backgrounds to appreciate ecclesiastical aesthetics: “People relax through not being burdened with over-interpretation.”

LuxmuralisLife by Luxmuralis, in Lincoln Cathedral, in 2023

A reporter from BBC local radio spoke to Mr Walker of having a “spiritual experience” after seeing Renaissance. The projection of an image of Adam, followed by the gates of heaven, as sunset fills Exeter Cathedral’s great west window, is a highlight of the show.

Intimations of evensong, in fortissimo bursts of the opening bars of “For Mary, mother of our Lord” (St Botolph), punctuate our chat as the organist rehearses for the evening service. The secret to working well with cathedrals and landmark churches, Mr Walker says, is to accept that they are not white-walled galleries where people come for a single purpose: to see art.

Cathedral visitors are there for multiple reasons. Some will be bereaved, some will be prayerful, some are there for services, and others are taking in a tourist attraction. “Cathedrals are living, breathing sites; the art and the artist have to fit into the life of the building. Everybody entering is on the same journey, contemplating life, and wants something to carry them through,” he says.

Adapting to cathedral life includes working around funerals, weddings, and last-minute changes to services, and flourishing in a space where exhibition set-up time is numbered in hours rather than the weeks offered by galleries.

In the balance between faith and creativity, Mr Walker sees his commitment as weighted towards bringing creativity to religious spaces. “You have to understand yourself and the audience, and how they see the world. Work that is overtly faithful appeals to a narrower audience.”

He points to Liverpool, celebrating its centenary next year, as a cathedral with a commitment to sustaining various arts, together with its established collection of works by modern and contemporary artists, including Dame Elisabeth Frink, Tracey Emin, and Craigie Aitchison.

“Dean Sue [Jones] is looking at creating a sense of a rolling programme, where contemporary art is expected,” Mr Walker says. In 2021, Gilbert Scott’s central space was the site of Peace Doves, an installation of 18,000 suspended paper doves (News, 22 May 2021). The following year, Being Human placed two hands, entitled Connection, inspired by Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, close to the altar. “The hands were a gateway to the altar: they reconnected people and a spiritual space.”

 

THE numbers speak for themselves. “In 2021, there were 4.5 million visits to cathedrals, and one in seven saw Luxmuralis shows or my sculptures,” Mr Walker says. Art interjections draw families from the surrounding area to cathedrals, and cement the buildings’ importance to their communities. At £6 for adults, and £4 for children, light shows attract both new revenue and new people to religious spaces.

LuxmuralisRenaissance, by Luxmuralis, in Exeter Cathedral last month

Money is not the only return on investment. For the 250,000 children involved in Mr Walker’s Peace Doves project, seeds of connection with cathedrals were sown. He estimates that half a million tickets would have been sold for Peace Doves if it had not been for Covid’s disruption.

The pandemic also thwarted the display of The Leaves on the Trees, installed in Sheffield Cathedral for only 12 hours before the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the second national lockdown. Mr Walker says of the touring 5000 steel leaves, each of which has the word “Hope” written on it: “Steel represents time, and the healing of the nation. They are not a memorial to lost life: they are about how you have been affected. It’s the chance to sit and reflect on your own life in a centuries-old cathedral.” Steel, with its appearance changed over time by corrosion, is a comprehensible metaphor.

Religious spaces commemorating secular events and St Paul’s Cathedral’s post-Covid position as “national remembrancer” are the subject of our discussion when the Custos, Luke Stevenson, comes over to ask Mr Walker to move his stepladder from the Lady chapel, as evensong is to begin soon at 5.30. “The St Paul’s monument shows people care”, Mr Walker concludes, “and provides a multifaith context to express the loss of Covid. It’s essential it happened; there would have been criticism if it hadn’t happened. And the monument will be around for a long time, not subject to Covid fatigue.”

Stepladder stowed out of sight, and laptop and projector given a final check, Mr and Mrs Walker — she is also part of the Luxmuralis team — use evensong to take a break before showtime, heading to Costa Coffee near by. Over peppermint tea, we discuss his secular works, including a statue to Shirebrook miners, funded solely by local subscriptions, to be unveiled on 30 April.

His sculpting process is unchanged from the ancient Greeks’: maquette in clay, pantograph to enlarge, and then casting in bronze. At the National Memorial Arboretum, his Pity of War — a blindfolded child’s head — will commemorate the innocent civilian victims of war.

“The Arboretum is a complex space, tilting towards the military; so the challenge is: how do we have a place to remember those who are forgotten, unknown, and nobody remembers?” he asks. He enjoys the irony of making monuments to ordinary people in the most expensive artistic medium, large-scale bronze.

Sneaking in through Exeter Cathedral’s exit door, I join the flow of spectators filing into the quire’s pews, as the Greensleeves-style music of Luxmuralis’s composer, David Harper, booms, and the enlarged traceries, shapes, and colours of Gothic rose windows kaleidoscope across the altar and arches.

Behind me, a woman is asking, “What is the Renaissance? Is it an art movement?” Her friend Googles “Renaissance”, and reads out the description. Two toddlers are dancing in front of the altar, in their own magical world. As we through to the nave, the music changes to a Carmina Burana style. A tree of white-lightning branches flashes across the tierceron vaulting.

Then, collages of images from the online collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York pulse across the vaults and windows, including representations of Mary, the shell from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, enlarged manuscripts, and Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. Visitors regularly lie on the floor to soak up the atmosphere, and last night somebody stayed from 6.30 to 9 p.m., they were so entranced.

His shows, Mr Walker concludes, create a “curated pilgrim’s route” through cathedrals, recasting difficult-to-read buildings in a new and engaging light. “It’s not painting by numbers. I’m not trying to make the original arches and architecture disappear: it’s creating a conduit for people, opening up an emotional pathway.”

For information about Luxmuralis, visit projectionartgallery.com

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