Arts

Can you find all 70 Elmer sculptures?

Jenny Lee talks to two of the artists involved in Elmer's Big Belfast Trail, which has brought welcome colour to the city through a herd of uniquely decorated and creative elephant sculptures to help raise valuable funds for the Northern Ireland Hospice

Elephant in the Room by Jason Curtis is just one of the many elephants to be found in Elmer's Big Belfast Trail this summer. Picture by Hugh Russell.

IF you go down to Belfast today you're in for a big surprise, as a herd of 70 elephants can be found roaming across the city...

Elmer's Big Belfast Trail sees these uniquely decorated sculptures located in locations across the city centre. The free, family-friendly art trail – a collaboration between Northern Ireland Hospice, Wild in Art and Andersen Press - brings David McKee's popular children's character Elmer the Patchwork Elephant to life in new ways.

Many of the sculptures pay tribute to the history and spirit of Belfast, from the linen industry and C.S. Lewis to the Titanic and Game of Thrones. Others touch on themes such as the natural beauty of Northern Ireland, environmentalism, the NHS, pride, fairy tales, folklore and inclusivity.

Ipswich-based couple Lois Cordelia and Jason Curtis are just two of the many local and international artists involved in painting the Elmer sculptures.

Community artist Lois's take on Elmer is called Mammoth Book of Fairytale and will bring a smile to young and old as it draws us into the worlds of storytelling and make-believe.

"Books have a mammoth influence on the minds of young and old alike. This Mammoth Book of Fairytale celebrates the power of fairytale books to transport us into enchanted realms," she explains.

Images of a unicorn, a lion, a spiral staircase, a waterfall, a rainbow, a hen, a peacock and a sea turtle all conjure up images of well-known fairy tales.

However, Lois says she didn't want to depict any particular tales; rather she wanted to "inspire people to make their own".

"As an artist I'm always creating and playing with things and putting them together in ways which you might not expect," she says.

"Like most artists I'm very much a child at heart, but sadly as people get older that creativity is drummed out of them. Stories help find that again.

"I love telling stories through images and pictures. I want people to interpret the imagery in whatever way they want and fly with their imagination."

Since 2008 Wild in Art has animated cities across the world through their public art trails. Lois painted her first Wild in Art creature in 2016 and has since gone on to do over 40, loving the reaction they evoke from the public.

"I love working on a large scale, with large brushes, a palette knife, sponges, fingers, everything. I never sketch with a pencil, I launch straight in and get the bare essentials down quickly using bold brush strokes, energy and movement," says Lois, who before Covid used to make most of her artwork live in public.

Lois believes the elephant is a highly symbolic sculpture to use for Elmer's Big Belfast Trail, which is part of the NI Hospice's celebrations to mark 21 years of care at the Children's Hospice, Horizon House.

Proceeds will help fund the specialist care given to babies, children and young people living with life-limiting and life-threatening illnesses.

"Elephants are very special partly because of their link with memory. If you have met an elephant, it will remember you many, many years later," says Lois.

"In the context of the Hospice, and indeed our post-pandemic world, the idea of remembering those who have passed away is something we want to cherish."

Working together in their home studio, I ask Lois if there was collaboration or competitiveness between her and Jason as they painted their Elmers.

"Jason and I work in very different styles and we mutually encourage each other. Art shouldn't be competitive," she says.

"It should be therapeutic healing and uplifting for the community and the artist and in this case for the Hospice."

Fuelled by his partner's passion for public art, Jason gave up his 40-year engineering career last year to devote more time to his art. His Elephant in the Room Elmer sculpture is his fourth public art installation in the past year.

Preferring to be known as "a creative spirit", his work ranges from detailed bespoke leatherwork and wooden sculptures to nautical themed paintings.

His sculpture for Elmer's Big Belfast Trail was inspired by his love of all things nautical. But rather than create something based on shipbuilding or the Titanic, Jason thought outside the box with an iceberg theme.

"I have a fascination with pirates and ships from the 16th and 17th century. I was researching pirates in the Belfast area, but it just didn't seem to fit the theme of this trail," he explains.

"I thought the Titanic would be done by others, so why not do the 'elephant in the room' - the iceberg? Everyone talks about Titanic. No one talks about the iceberg. I know you people in Belfast have good humour and that you would get it."

Each Elmer is sponsored by a local business or organisation, making the trail deeply rooted in the community. Jason's Elephant in the Room Elmer is sponsored by The Irish News, who as an organisation are also very much concerned about themes of climate change and carbon footpritnt.

"Today, the iceberg has a far more urgent and uncomfortable global significance that no one wants to talk about - climate change," adds Jason, who as an artist ensures he is not wasteful.

"I do paint with acrylic, but I use as little as possible and ensure every bit gets used. We all have to do our bit."

Jason admits that "engineering will never leave me" and this can be seen in the geometrical structure of his Elmer.

"I spent a lot of time looking at icebergs in Iceland and Greenland and examining their shape and colours."

The Elephant in the Room is located at Donegall Quay beside John Kindness's Salmon of Knowledge sculpture.

Jason was pleasantly surprised that the existing big fish sculpture was of a similar colour scheme to his Elmer. "I wanted to use shades of blue and white to have a stark contrast," he adds.

:: Elmer HQ is located on the first floor of CastleCourt Shopping Centre. Here you will find trail souvenirs, storytelling and free art workshops. The trail also has an accompanying interactive Elmer Belfast app. For further information on the trail visit Elmerbelfast.co.uk.