Mining Josef Herman: a creative response

Josef Herman, Sketch of a squatting miner, date not known, Tate Archives.

Josef Herman, Sketch of a squatting miner, date not known, Tate Archives.

In 1944, the Polish artist Josef Herman arrived in the Welsh mining town of Ystradgynlais after six unsettled years travelling across Europe as a refugee. Finding a warm welcome there, he stayed for eleven years and made the local people the focus of his sketches and drawings. In 2002, the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru was set up to celebrate his work and encourage participation in the arts. 

As part of Tate's Archives & Access Project, they have been collaborating with the gallery on a series of workshops, events and artist-led projects. This included commissioning artist Rabab Ghazoul to create a new participatory artwork that explored Josef Herman's archive and his legacy in the town. She remarked:

I was drawn to the challenge of bringing to life the work of an artist that some may feel is stuck in the past. 

It’s quite unique to be working on a project that focuses on an artist that’s so significant to a particular place. I’ve heard stories from people in Ystradgynlais who remember Herman, who sat in his studio watching him paint when they were children, or chatted to him in the street. Working in the context of the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru means sustaining and celebrating that legacy. And it’s a hugely rich legacy to keep opening out for people.

Josef Herman, Sketch of a mine with slag heap, date not known, Tate Archives. 

Josef Herman, Sketch of a mine with slag heap, date not known, Tate Archives. 

The project led her to working with two choirs, one a school choir at a local comprehensive and the other a well-known male voice choir from Cwmtwrch. Apart from looking at his sketches, she found it really interesting to investigate Herman's writings. Together with the two choirs, she explored some of these texts musically and verbally. She hoped that, by working with sound, music and words, the two choirs would each gain a fresh insight into Herman's images, which are often harsh and disquieting. The project culminated in a public performance of the specially written score at The Welfare, Ystradgynlais on 12 July 2015. 

If you're a composer or a creative writer, have you ever thought of using artists' archives as a source of inspiration?