Jason Wilsher-Mills in Wakefield: sculpture, disability, care & an Amazonian Caiman God
As part of a new series of contemporary art sculptures through Wakefield, Jason Wilsher-Mills has unveiled Amazonian Caiman-God, a bronze work dedicated to disability, care & the city of his childhood. Will Jennings visited the artist, who has had a disability since aged 11, to find out how an Amazonian God ended up in Yorkshire.

“We say keep our ticket offices open! Make sure the Tories don’t get away with yet another cut in public services.” Protestors in the shadow of the Wakefield Cathedral, where Westgate, Northgate, and Kirkgate meet were filling the square with a rallying call: “Come up and sign our petition, save our ticket offices now! Ticket offices are vital for people who don’t use the network every day, they’re vital for people in wheelchairs, they’re vital if you need assistance getting off the train. The Tories have instructed the fourteen rail companies to shut over 1000 ticket offices.”

The same civic square is also home to a new piece of public art, a bronze sculpture of what seems to be an ancient Amazonian God, quite incongruous to the British classical and commercial surrounding setting. Most people notice it, curious glances are cast in the direction of this unexpected character that has landed into this unsuspecting Yorkshire scene. Some stop to look, but it’s mainly children who get up close, some with parents who encourage them to explore, others who are told to step back and not touch the art.


Then the artist rolls up. I’m here to meet. Jason Wilsher-Mills is an artist from Wakefield and who created the stout character on the plinth. Titled Amazonian Caiman God, it is a bronze collage of countless stories both personal and abstract. While at first glance it may appear alien to its Yorkshire setting, the Caiman God is profoundly about of the local than one may expect on first encounter.

“It's very personal piece of art,” Wilsher-Mills says, adding that “it can't get much more personal than my mum and dad being held aloft by a geezer in his underpants. Everything in the sculpture is about the tradition of growing up here.” This includes the underpants – the artist pointed down the street to “where all the nightclubs used to be” where one night he saw a man “walking up with a fag and a pint of beer, only in his underpants.” This is an unusual civic moment to celebrate in perpetuity, but this is no ordinary civic monument, and the underpants clubber is only one of a coterie of characters embedded into the work.

The primary character is that of Wilsher-Mills himself. The Amazonian God has braces around each leg, a fingerless-glove extending up his forearm, a steampunky headdress of tubes and pipes, a rigid neck brace, and a body patterned with clips, fastenings, bolts, and unidentifiable bits. “Basically, everything that’s on him are things I've had to wear,” the artist explains, “I am – proudly – showing off the remnants, history, and archaeology of what my disability has done to me.”


Wilsher-Mills’ disability is present in both his person and art. As we head from the sculpture’s location to a café just five minutes’ walk away, the path accessible to his electric wheelchair doubled the journey’s duration through having to find the dropped curbs, avoid the cobble-stone paving, waiting for a longer gap between vehicles on a road with no pedestrian crossing, avoiding the pavement with cars part-parked over the pavement. Acts of mobility or urban infrastructure I take for granted, or don’t even notice, become critical to Wilsher-Mill’s movement.

“To come here today the planning that had to go into it – my shoulders are not too good at the moment and I wasn't able to drive, so we came on the train, but to get a train we have to make sure I have an accessible space.” The artist adds that “everything's difficult, it’s exhausting, thinking about that all the time is exhausting.”

This planning is not only mentally tiring, but financially draining. Wilsher-Mills speaks of studies that indicate that being physically disabled costs a third more just to carry out very normal activities and just to be, and when one thinks of the precarious existence of most artists – even those deemed to be successful and past the ‘emerging’ stage of their career – the simple fact of money is evidently one important reason we have not seen many prominent artists with disabilities. “I’m already at a disadvantage when I turn up for a meeting,” he explains, “because I'm physically exhausted through the very act of getting there.”

“I can't travel without a personal assistant,” he adds, and with the protests against ticket hall closures still echoing, adds that “there's a good chance I'd still be on the train going up to Scotland.” Having an assistant for such trips, even a simple interview for a relatively small platform like recessed.space, has huge cost implications. “As I often say, Damien Hirst doesn’t have to put up with that!” This is not about carrying his disability with a grudge, indeed he has already said how Amazonian Caiman God is a proud act of identity, more of recognition and empathetic understanding from those without disabilities. That, and a deep political anger against systems of inequality, hardwired ideologies, and the Conservative government.



Another key character in the Amazonian Caiman God is Charles Waterton, a local landowner who held a number of eclectic interests. A well-known part of the city’s heritage, Waterton was the owner of Walton Hall, a neoclassical pile surrounded by a moat just outside Wakefield. He was also a playful experimenter with very amateur taxidermy. “He made characters that were so eccentric,” Wilsher-Mills says as he scrolls through photos in his phone he used as research for his sculpture. Waterton’s pieces are indeed peculiar, but also beautiful and incredibly artistic, and their connection to the Wakefield God is evident.

There is a myth about Waterton that is not disproven, though somewhat unlikely. It’s alleged that he travelled down the Amazon riding on the back of a caiman, a story that inspired Wilsher-Mills to give his God a caiman headdress – “it’s something Amazonian warriors do, and I wanted my disability to be really strong and positive” – while the irreverent taxidermy also fuelled the piece. “I took the idea of an original Amazonian piece of folk art from prehistoric times, then I mixed it with working class imagery and disability activism,” he says, adding with a smile, “like you do.”

Walton Hall was requisitioned during the Second World War and turned into a maternity home and is now a hotel and spa. When a hospital, it was where Wilsher-Mills’ mother worked, a building within which a woman with a tough childhood found herself and was respected. “Mum had never had a proper bed, or anything like that,” Wilsher-Mills explains, “then she got a job as an auxiliary nurse there.” It was, he says, “the only place that she felt like a real person,” and there is a clear love and respect for his mother, but beyond that other very normal people who give their lives to care and caring: “When I became ill as an 11-year-old, she fought violently for me to not be put into a home, she lifted me in and out of bed, she was an absolute Trojan!”


His mum, Irene, is a character present in the sculpture, standing alongside Wilsher-Mills’ father in a small boat held aloft by the Amazonian God. The boat is a reference to the ferryman who would help her across the Walton Hall moat if she left work after the drawbridge had been pulled up, but is also “a metaphor for death and hope.”

In the boat, in miniature, the couple are dancing on their wedding day, modelled from “the only photograph that have  of mum and dad being affectionate towards one another.” Showing emotions on a sleeve perhaps isn’t a Yorkshire characteristic – but Wilsher-Mills’ sculpture seeks to puncture that cliché with play and empathy to show that everybody has a story, weakness, and strength: “This is about ordinary people who just happen to be extraordinary, like my little mum.”

Wilsher-Mills’ father was a miner, but he “had no romanticism about it,” the artist says, adding that “he said it was a really horrible, hard job, but my parents were unbelievably supportive.” Of the eight children in the household, he was the only to show artistic flourish, supported by his parents who said it would be cleaner than the mine. “I was naturally drawn to it, I think it's something in the DNA, to want to draw,” he says, but it was his illness and disability which honed his ideas: “I was in hospital for a year, and I was completely paralysed from the neck down, so I actually lived in my head – that’s when my creative process started.”


This period of Wilsher-Mills’ life is set to be explored later this year in a major exhibition in London’s Wellcome Collection. Jason and the Adventure of 254, opening 21 March, is the artist’s largest commission to date and commits the experience of diagnosis of an autoimmune condition, triggered through chickenpox, into an artwork which conflates the overwhelming emotion and lifechanging situation with the cultural, political, and media events that surrounded his child mind at the very moment.

“I'm recreating the moment when I was diagnosed at Pinderfields Hospital just up the road,” with the artist recreating his memory of the scene of not only doctors but also the live relay of the 1980 Moscow Olympics 1500m running final: “There's going to be Sebastian Coe sculpture, but you won't recognise him because he's got a TV for a head.” Coe was wearing the number 254 as he crossed the line first, but the number in the exhibition title also alludes to the moment of the artist’s own world changing: “I was diagnosed between 2.50pm and 3.10pm, but I was watching Sebastian Coe, because I was more interested in that.”


There is humour in Wilsher-Mills practice, evident also in the Amazonian Caiman God, but a humour that wraps itself around seriousness. Without doubt, his disability is a hinderance and daily challenge, but the artist also relishes in the humanity and benefits it can bring. “The birth of my creativity was an opportunity,” he explains, “because I got out of a really tough school – it was a sliding doors moment where I changed the course of my life.” He adds that many of his schoolfriends ended up in prison, while he visits prisons to teach art.

2024 is set to be a busy year, with the artist also involved in a landmark project for SHAPE Arts who are presenting a pavilion of British artists with disabilities at the Venice Biennale, a project which should help present not only Wilsher-Mills’ profile to a greater audience, but also the artists with disabilities more widely. The Wakefield sculpture is “the first permanent public piece of sculpture by a disabled artist, who is clearly claiming disability,” he says, proudly.

I ask if this feeds into the ongoing conversation of civic space and the monuments we choose to present in our city, and the stories and people they represent. “It's really important that we ask questions,” he responds, and discusses the statue of the slaver Edward Colston that was publicly de-plinthed and tossed into Bristol’s harbour. “The old statue wasn't thrown away, it was exhibited as it was, and people can talk about it – and I was really keen to take that debate on, to have a sculpture that was really clearly about ordinary working class people.”

Disability and working class issues are rarely presented in such a civic way as with Amazonian Caiman God. When in 2005 Marc Quinn unveiled Alison Lapper Pregnant on London’s Fourth Plinth, a marble figurative work of his disabled friend, the artist Alison Lapper, it brought huge discussion and a great number of quite bigoted responses. Lapper herself, speaking to the Independent newspaper,[1] said that “I find it very hard to deal with being described as a heroine … I am just living my life. I think what Marc has done is fantastic but it would also have been fantastic if it was a work of me by me that was going on that plinth. If the same work had been done by me and I wasn’t disabled, might it be my sculpture that won?”

Wilsher-Mills picks up this issue of not only being seen, but being seen to be telling one’s own story, and not have it tolf by others. Of his own sculpture, the artist says that he “thought it's really important to make a statement about the experience of working class disabled people and their carers,” and again refers to Damien Hirst. In 2003 Hirst made the sculpture Charity, a seven-metre high recreation of a 1960s Spastic’s Society charity collection box, one which would have been on high streets up and down the country inviting charitable donations.

There’s a famous expression that comes from the disability activism movement,” Wilsher-Mills says, “which is ‘Nothing about us without us’.” He then tackles Hirst’s sculpture: “That work was a multimillionaire making a piece of work that was about us, but he didn’t ask us questions or talk to us. We requested a meeting to discuss his work. We didn’t mind it being shown at the odd biennial, but we wanted to have a debate about the context, but I don’t think that he was interested, which doesn't surprise me.”

As with other moments of anger or obstacle, Wilsher-Mills saw opportunity. “So, I went away and made my own stuff – I thought that if he’s doing that kind of work, we've got to do it!” This fed into the Wakefield sculpture, which he describes as “not public art, but art in a public space.” Despite knowing the town, its history, and the stories that would feed into the piece, he worked with the city’s disability charities to ensure that they were involved from its start. “There’s nothing worth than ploppism,” he says, “just putting in a piece of work where you say what it is, that’s not good enough.”


The work itself is, however, very much from the artist’s own hand which developed from drawings into the final work, his first bronze – though more may follow. “I think bronze is my thing,” he says of the process which involved digital drawing, a scale 3D model in Belgium, then fabrication in Stroud using an experimental new moulding technique to preserve the level of detail. Altogether it took around eight months, but the artist says that the final work is a direct translation of his hand drawings: “It was transferred directly onto it, so even the mistakes are there, but there are lots of little details – the textile in the tank top has got little messages in that no one can see until I point them out.” He says there’s a hidden message saying ‘I love you’ and shows me the I, a heart as a love sign, then… “I can’t remember where I put the U, but it’s in there somewhere!” There are so many details and narratives in the work, they now even escape its creator.

The work, however, is no longer Wilsher-Mills’. It is Wakefield’s. “You know, you put a painting on a wall, and you've lost it, it’s no longer yours,” and indeed the public had begun to claim it as theirs as evidenced by the people stopping to look at the work and also express their admiration of it to the artist while we spoke. And, of course, the people – young and old – who caressed it with their hands, as if trying to find that lost U: “I want people to touch it, it's very textural.”

“As much as I anticipated people would adopt him, because he is quite a special character about happiness and optimism,” the artist says, “it’s about Wakefield really – it’s about as Wakefield as you can get in a sculpture.” It is now in the city centre permanently, and while has Wilsher-Mills’ own life, stories, family, and creative wanderings compressed into its aesthetic and form, it also makes space for others to fold in their own meanings and memories.

“It’s something Wakefield should be proud of, being the first city to have a piece of permanent art by an artist with a disability, depicting disability – and it's not hidden away, it's right in the city centre. For that I'm unbelievably grateful, I think it's a really positive thing.”

[1] See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/alison-lapper-you-ask-the-questions-59087.html.

Jason Wilsher-Mills (b. 1969, Wakefield, UK) celebrates disability, popular culture and his northern working-class heritage through cutting-edge technologies, brightly coloured, largescale humorous work. In 2020 Wilsher-Mills received the Adam Reynolds Award, from SHAPE Arts. He was then commissioned to create a new interactive sculpture for the Folkestone Triennial in 2021.
Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Jason Wilsher-Mills: Jason & the Argonauts’ at the People’s History Museum, Manchester (2019), ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs Remixed’ at Shire Hall Museum, Dorchester (2019), ‘Unexpected Engagement’ at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe (2018) and Artlink Hull (2018). His work The Other Western Gentleman (2015) was recently acquired for the Government Art Collection. The artist currently has an exhibition ‘Jason & his Argonauts’ on show until 18 June 2023 at Wentworth Woodhouse, Rotherham. The artist is also working on a new project with the Wellcome Collection, London, for Spring 2024.

Wakefield Council have organised the city centre public sculptures programme has been made possible thanks to a £1m investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport(DCMS), administered by Arts Council England (ACE), specifically to curate outdoor contemporary sculptures that animate the city centre. Wakefield Council drew upon Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s expertise in outdoor sculpture, commissioning the organisation to support the process to select the five artists.
The new sculptures launching this summer will amplify the city’s extraordinary cultural heritage and resonate with both residents and visitors. Each artist has been selected for projects that create a relationship and dialogue with the city centre. Launching throughout July and August, the sculptures will collectively form a free, outdoor public art trail creating a unique city centre sculpture experience.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha Studios.

Amazonian Caiman God is located in Wakefield Cathedral Precinct. It is one part of a series of major new public sculptures across the city also including work by Halima Cassell, Andy Holden, Annie Morris & Ro Robertson. More information is available at: www.experiencewakefield.co.uk/sculpture-trail

Jason and the Adventure of 254 will be at the Wellcome Collection, 21 March 2024 to 12 January 2025. Details available at: www.wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions

The SHAPE Arts pavilion for Venice Biennale 2024 will be announced shortly with information on their website: www.shapearts.org.uk


figs.i-iii,vi-ix Jason Wilsher-Mills, Amazonian Caiman God. Photograph © Will Jennings.
fig.iv,x Jason Wilsher-Mills.Amazonian Caiman God. © Wakefield Council
fig.v Waterton Park Hotel. © Waterton Park Hotel

publication date
12 January 2024

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