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Project: Pages of the Sea
Date: 2018
Location: Weymouth, Dorset, UK

14-18 Now! was the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary. The 14-18 Now! team worked with arts and heritage partners across the UK to commission new pieces from 420 contemporary artists, musicians, film makers, designers, and performers. These included the noted ‘Wave’ and ‘Weeping Window’ Poppy Sculptures by Tom Piper and Paul Cummins, Jeremy Deller’s ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ and Peter Jackson’s BAFTA-nominated film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.

The final 14-18 Now! project, ‘Pages of the Sea’, marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, and the end of the First World War. On 11 November 2018, film-maker Danny Boyle invited people from across the UK to gather on beaches and watch as portraits of war-time Allied servicemen and servicewomen were crafted into the wet sand before being washed away by the tide, as an ultimate, poetic farewell. Artists were selected from across the UK to lead small teams and create the 28 large-scale drawings in a simultaneous live event across the UK that concluded at 11am on Remembrance Sunday.

I was fortunate enough to be chosen to lead Weymouth Beach by Activate Performing Arts, the commissioners for Dorset, and delighted to lead a team of three ex-veterans and three art students from Weymouth College. Our portrait was of Private Stanley Robert McDougall VC, an ANZAC soldier hospitalised and cared for in Westham, Weymouth. Each of the 28 portraits were carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of the millions who served in active duty.

Firstly though, all the UK lead artists were trained on Ainsworth Sands near Morecambe by ‘Sand in Your Eyes’, an organisation specialized in using sand as a sculptural material. In addition to the technique of scaling-up archive images from A4 B&W photographs to 400sqm images, there were also manual techniques such as raking to create maximum shadows, by calculating the angle of the sun, as demonstrated in Zen pebble gardens. Marine science also played a part in the recognition of perfect humidity required in the sand for drawing, combined with the various timing of the tide tables for each location. Each drawing activity lasted just under three hours, timed with the cycles of each local tide.

Pages of the Sea was the largest simultaneous coastal arts project to take place in the UK and an estimated 14,000 people attended the Dorset beach events. At Weymouth and Lyme Regis, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg led packed open-mic sessions with members of the community joining to share personal memories, poetry, and song. The project was an inclusive and collaborative tribute to those who gave their lives to the First World War. Those unable to attend could take part online, with over 81,000 people visiting the Pages of the Sea website. 35M people – including eight million young people – engaged with the ’14-18 Now!’ programme, achieving reach and resonance at local, national, and international levels.