Installation art can feel a bit inaccessible, but not The Cornershop. This is one art installation that’s open all hours (or at least 10am to 7pm). In an abandoned shop on a corner of Columbia Road in east London, artist Lucy Sparrow has created a playful wonderland of felt groceries that makes you think about the way society has changed while gently caressing you with the tactile promise of squidgy marmite in a jar, stroke-able hobnobs and fuzzy oven chips straight from the freezer. We talked to Lucy about her labour of love, her deliberately “rough” stitching, and the role craft has to play in art…
What was the concept behind The Cornershop?
The concept grew out of an idea to create an art installation that would be overwhelming to people visiting. I wanted to create something that was so complete that it drew people into it and surrounded them completely. I also wanted to draw attention to the role that the traditional British cornershop played in society. It was a place open all hours where the community met and swapped gossip and forged bonds. It’s something that’s disappearing with the growth of supermarkets and the loss of the cornershop has adversely impacted our high streets and communities. I hoped that this project would remind people just how much the cornershop cemented life in local communities. So far it’s done just that. Visitors to The Cornershop have chatted, discussed art and reminisced about their own childhood memories of cornershops. My first job was in a local shop and it’s that memory that inspired me to take eight months to assemble each hand-stitched piece and to create a complete installation.
How did you come up with the idea of stocking it with products all made from felt?
I’ve been working with felt for quite a few years now. I love its naïve feel and strong colours. It’s nostalgic and childlike. I think it was the ideal material for this project.
Have you always sewn?
I have sewn since I was a small girl. We did some sewing at school and my grandmother ran a fashion store where they produced their own garments. I spent a lot of time in the workrooms as a child, playing on the sewing machines.
When we posted an article about The Cornershop on our Facebook page, people were awed by your patience (and intrigued the placement of the K-Y jelly next to the sardines and pilchards). How long did it take you to make everything?
In total it took around eight months, working up to 14 hours a day to create all the pieces. It really was a labour of love.
How many products are there on your shop floor, and did you sew each one yourself?
About 4,000 separate items and I made each one or finished each one by hand. I had some help with raw stitching and stuffing with a part-time assistant.
Which one was the trickiest?
Possibly the Marmite jar. The shape is difficult and there’s a lot of detail in it.
Do you know how much felt, thread and glue you got through?
I think possibly 1,000 metres of material. To be honest, I’ve lost count. I ordered boxes and boxes of threads. I must have used kilometres of thread.
How many needle-pricks did you suffer for your art?
Too many to count!
The Cornershop is a HUGE project. Was there ever a point where you felt scared by what you’d undertaken?
I knew it would be a slog but I also knew I could do it. Part of being an artist is to conceive a project and then deliver it. I raised money on Kickstarter and received an Arts Council grant so there was no way that I wasn’t going to finish the project; too many people were waiting to see it.
How have visitors reacted to The Cornershop?
Wonderful reactions from almost everyone and visitors have found it difficult not to touch the pieces. There have been so many nice comments and as I’ve been in the shop every day so I’m able to answer questions and be a part of the installation.
What about children – how have they responded to being inside a shop full of imagination?
It’s been great to see children interacting with the installation. I think my work beats stuffy old oil paintings in a dusty gallery from their point of view. It’s lovely to see children enjoying art.
What’s been flying off the shelves?
Biscuits have been very popular, especially the Digestives and Hobnobs. The medicines have been popular too. I think a lot of people are drawn to products they’re most familiar with.
What’s the most expensive item in the shop – and the cheapest?
Most items sell for around £25. The cheapest is £3 for a soft cigarette lighter and the most expensive item is the shop till which is around £800. I wanted the art to be affordable so that almost anyone could buy something to keep from The Cornershop.
The Cornershop is an art installation. Where do you think craft sits within art?
Craft has an important role to play, but I think it’s more about producing useful things. My art isn’t useful; it’s there to make you think and perhaps to make a point. I’m not sure that’s the same with craft. That said, I think the skill standard of crafters probably exceeds that of many artists. My stitching is deliberately rough in places and not always neat. A lot of crafters might find that unacceptable.
Are there any artists or makers who particularly inspire you?
I love the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin and the wonderful Grayson Perry. I think they’ve all done a lot to promote British art and to change the way we see art.
What are your opening hours and how long will the Cornershop stay open for?
The Cornershop is open for all of August from 10am until 7pm. Entry is free.
Have you got any plans for what’s next?
I have got plans but it’s all very ‘hush hush’ at the moment. Watch this space.
If you could choose one thing from The Cornershop to put in your basket and take home, what would it be?
I think the McCain Oven Chips are my favourite. I just love the colours, the detail and the squeezability.
Are you exhausted? Have you got a nice sofa to put your feet up on with a hot cup of felted tea and a felt biscuit?
I’m actually on a bit of a high at the moment. I’m meeting so many people who have made a special journey to see my art that I’m learning a lot about what the public likes and sees in my art installation. Those who see my work are consumers of my art and it’s important that I can see it from their viewpoint too. I do relax very late at night. I unwind with gallons of tea and Hobnobs. Those are my vices.
The Cornershop is open at 19 Wellington Row E2 7BB, until 31st August from 10am – 7pm
If you can’t get there in person, fear not, you can buy your felt groceries from the online Cornershop >>