Chad McCail introduces his new mural, Hopes and Fears, at Millfield Metro Station, Millfield, Sunderland, SR4 7AF. It was made between September 2022 and September 2023, and commissioned by Nexus (Tyne and Wear Metro) and Sunderland Culture.
For an artist interested in radical politics the opportunity to make a public mural is a big deal. Creating a picture which reflects the lives of local residents but also engages and inspires is an exciting challenge. So I was delighted when I was selected by Nexus, the Tyne and Wear Metro operator, and Sunderland Culture, to paint a mural on the wall of Millfield Metro station in Sunderland.
The first step was to find one or two groups within the city that I could work with. If I could offer classes in an activity which involved some form of storytelling I might learn about life in the city. I spent six weeks working daily with two local organisations – Pallion Action Group provides support, advice and guidance to local residents, and Young Asian Voices offers a wide range of activities to the local community and in particular to young members of the black Asian minority ethnic community.
Together we made a cast of glove puppet characters, wrote a script and made a short puppet film. The business of designing and fabricating the puppets together offered ample opportunity for us to begin to get to know one another. In the course of our activities I began to get some idea about people’s concerns and aspirations, their anxiety at the decline in public services, rising bills and the cost of accommodation but also their desire for a just transition to a low carbon economy that would provide hope for their children’s future.
It also became clear how much pride existed in the city's industrial past and how much a collective memory existed of the stronger community relationships that had accompanied that period.
I returned to my studio in Scotland in November 2022 to work on a drawing that could be transferred to the wall and painted the following summer. I felt that I needed a story that made reference to the past but commented on the present and offered some hope for the future.
In 2014 I had worked with local residents on the Becontree estate in Dagenham to create a mural which took the form of a road winding through the area. The road began with the estate’s construction in the 1920’s and ended in the present day.
I decided to use a similar storyboarding style to tell a story where characters from Sunderland’s industrial past rose from their graves to inspire the residents to take collective action against the injustices of today.
In the story a group of young people find the skeletons of old shipyard workers and miners getting up from their graves. At first they are frightened but, overcoming their fears, they make friends and show them their mobile phones. The skeletal figures are fascinated and want to learn more about how the world has changed.
Together they walk through the graveyard where views open up on different scenes – an NHS hospital menaced by cardreader headed monsters intent on private profit, people being evicted from their flats when they cannot pay the high rents demanded, monstrously wealthy electricity companies disconnecting households who cannot afford escalating prices, and people from overseas arriving on the shore with nothing but a bag and a rucksack.
As the young people show their ancestors the challenges they now face they are joined in discussion by more and more people from the city. Outraged by this deteriorating situation the skeletons encourage the people to take collective action to combat the threat to their community presented by the card-reader headed monsters.
The story ends with the with the people coming together to form a giant figure made up of unified individuals larger and stronger than the monsters. With the drawing completed I returned to Sunderland in July and spent 8 weeks painting it onto the wall. Passers-by were encouraging and inquisitive and as the picture was largely obscured by scaffolding, I frequently found myself telling them the story.
Often we would end up agreeing that people and communities can have real power when they work together and that we have to fight against being divided and allowing particular sections of society to be scapegoated and blamed for the destructive practices of a tiny, wealthy minority.