The story behind mysterious gigantic wooden sculptures that can be glimpsed on the shoreline below Beachy Head is one that is quintessentially English. It begins, as these things sometimes do, with an obsessive hobby for making things out of discarded materials. And goes on to include a cast of characters worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
Sussex Bylines met the artist Planksy – who prefers to be identified only by his forename Hugh – at a secret location to find out more. He grinned as he explained that it had all begun with a snail.
His stepson had joined a beach clean-up group litter-picking on Eastbourne beach. The volunteers were members of Bhass Explore, and their leader – the wonderfully named Warm Norm – mentioned a project he had in mind of building a giant snail on the shoreline below Beachy Head. The idea was to raise awareness of the amount of plastic litter washed up on our shores. Hugh’s stepson said that ‘his dad made things like that’ – and so the project was born.
The wood for the sculpture was all found on the spot – much had come ashore from the ships that lost their timber in the storms of 2009 and 2012. “It’s wonderfully rounded and wind and wave cured. Everything has to be straight lines of course and I quite like that as the wood dictates what you can make.”
Hugh seems slightly puzzled by Warm Norm’s choice of a snail, but admits of the location “it’s a great stretch of chalk with massive rock pools and lots of snails do live down there … salty sea, really hostile environment but thousands of snails – where do they come from?”
Hazardous rocky environment
Inspired by the creation of the snail sculpture – a Facebook video by Hugh’s son Felix can be seen here – and the extraordinary landscape, he started building other pieces.
A self-taught artist, Hugh has always been fascinated by patterns in art and in nature. And his politics too – he is a member of Extinction Rebellion – has tended to influence his choice of subjects. These have included a skeletal fish, the head of a Renaissance man and a giant woman called Hope.
Hugh admits to the challenges of creating the pieces in situ in the hazardous rock-strewn environment beneath the cliffs: “I have to make them lying down and then carry them to where they will be – most art is stepping back and seeing what you’ve done and how you’ve progressed and of course you can’t do that because they’re so big. I don’t know what they really look like until they’re up and I’ve walked some distance away.
“I enjoy the fact that the pieces are ephemeral.”Hugh, aka Planksy
“I made one that I called Afro Man – he was like a seventies pop idol with wild hair – and I was really pleased with him until I walked away and then from a distance he looked like Ronald McDonald. I was relieved when he was blown over and destroyed. So not everything works, and I actually enjoy the fact that the pieces are ephemeral.”
Before the beach sculptures, Hugh had already developed a reputation as a street artist. Finding himself with a lot of left-over plywood from a job as a landscape gardener, he felt he couldn’t just throw it away.
“So I started cutting these birds out [as you do] and painting them, and I had them all over the house, on the walls and screwed to the ceiling. And eventually my girlfriend said what are you going to do with them all? So I thought I would just put them out everywhere – along the front and on street benches.”
He had never done any street art before and was immensely pleased by the feedback on social media. “It was such a good feeling that people were getting pleasure from them.” A council worker christened the mystery creator Planksy and the sobriquet stuck.
The objects do occasionally get vandalised, but Hugh takes great delight in the fact that they are quickly repaired. “One got its tail snapped off and then someone came along and put lavender flowers in its place. They disappeared and then someone else put feathers on it and I just love it that other people are engaging with it and even better, that the vandals had actually caused this to happen.”
‘On the shoreline, it’s a totally immersive experience’Hugh, aka Planksy
Landscapes and sculpture
The deep connection between his love of the landscape and the sculptures he creates is best expressed in his own words: You can be there on the shoreline with the peregrine falcons nesting above you and the seabirds diving, and the seals poking their heads up and it’s just a totally immersive experience. The chalk is the purest white, and the best time to be there is in the winter when the sun sets over the sea and on a clear day the cliffs are lit in peach, red, pink – the most amazing colours.
After a day working on a sculpture, when I’m walking back home along the cliffs and I turn round and see the piece that I’ve created in the setting sun – it’s just amazing.” He adds reflectively: “And this all started because Warm Norm wanted a snail.”
Hugh will be exhibiting with the Last Minute Artists group at South Hill Barn, Seaford, 5 –13 August
Bhass Explore are always looking for volunteers to join their beach-clearing days – the next one takes place on the 23 July. Contact via https://www.bhassexplore.com/events