By Daniel Margrain
Sculptor Drew Edwards (second right) unveiled his moving work Children of the Mediterranean on campus with the help of Syrian refugees now studying at MDX
Actor and sculptor, Andrew Edwards, has been dubbed the ‘penniless philanthropist’. The 51 year old’s life-affirming sculptures, mainly created from tonnes of granite, are a labour of love for Edwards who neither receives, nor asks, for a penny in return for his efforts.
I’ve witnessed the artist toil for hours on end in our communal garden sculpting his creations with a hand grinder. The man often suffers for his art – sometimes, in the physical sense, literally. Last summer he nearly lost a finger and more recently he suffered a deep wound to his leg – the hand tool almost severing a tendon.
The rewards for Edwards is the knowledge that he is making a difference – no matter how small – to help shift the public’s consciousness in terms of bringing to their attention the plight of the some of the most desperate souls on the planet – refugee children driven from their homes by the ravages of imperialist wars who are then exploited by criminal gangs.
Edward’s remarkable story culminated in the recent unveiling of his latest creation, a 91-piece installation entitled ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ – dedicated by the artist in memory of refugee children who were drowned or have been trafficked crossing the Mediterranean sea.
The 91 figures represent the percentage of children who have made the perilous journey unaccompanied. It is the first major piece of art to be erected on the Ritterman plinth in the centre of the new prestigious £18m Ritterman building at Middlesex University’s north London campus.
Edwards began his two year long ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ project after seeing the lifeless body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach. The image was captured by the corporate press and printed on many of their front pages, It was subsequently used by Western governments as justification for implementing their regime change agenda in the country.
The image of the dead child brought back disturbing childhood memories for Edwards. At the age of eight, the artist remembered watching the TV documentary series, ‘The World At War’. Edwards was haunted by the image of small children imprisoned in a concentration camp. The nightmare of this experience and the terror on the faces of the children and those who had survived the Mediterranean sea journey, are represented in the faceless stone figures that comprise his most recent creation.
“I didn’t want these children to be forgotten”, said Edwards in his statement to those who attended the recent unveiling of the piece. He added: “This is my way of ensuring this doesn’t happen. News coverage of these kinds of tragic events are often transient in the minds of the public. Hopefully, my work offers a sense of permanence. I think the piece is self-explanatory.”
The logistics involved in moving 7 tonnes of granite into a relatively small outdoor space in the university campus space where the plinth is located was a feat in itself. But having done so, with minimal support, is a testament to the artists commitment to his work.
All the effort was worth it. It’s a stunning piece. The clamor of various sizes of granite stone pieces are packed together in close proximity to one another – a community of lost souls bound together metaphorically and literally by their shared sense of resilience to survive against the odds.
Among them is a solitary figure of white marble, and hidden amid the bodies, is one of the sculptors trademark angels – perhaps symbolizing hope for the future. The entire piece is enmeshed in rusted encased chains that invoke in the viewer an emotional connection to the helplessness of human beings imprisoned by an endless ocean.
Invited by the event organiser to say a few more words during the unveiling, a self-effacing Edwards continued:
“I feel the piece will now have a life of its own. I can’t say for sure where it will be next or where, if ever, it will end up.”
Edwards has other pieces of his dotted around the capital city. Two months ago, the artist was so moved by the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, he donated a statue to the shrine in memory of the victims. It now stands among the flames and tributes at the entrance to Notting Hill Methodist church. Entitled, ‘Grieving Figure In Stone’, it was gratefully accepted by the minister of the church, Rev. Mark Long. and it is hoped it will become a centrepiece in a future garden of remembrance.
Edwards, who is dyslexic and suffers from Grave’s disease, turned to sculpting three years ago as a means of remaining creative between acting jobs. He left school at 15, and at the age of 24, paid to go through drama school and become an actor. Unfortunately, he also became an alcoholic and drug addict but has been clean and sober for the last 20 years.
The artist, whose last role was in the Meryl Streep film, Suffragette, began sculpting by creating angels. Largely inspired by the paintings of William Blake, Edward’s creations have a contemplative and ethereal quality to them. Much of his work seems to hint at themes of spiritual yearning and of the vulnerability of the human condition in a world that is seemingly spiraling out of control.
His first major work was a 20-foot high ‘Memorial Angel’ of recycled wind-blown oak and stainless steel that he donated to the Finchley Memorial Hospital. It stands outside the children’s cancer unit and attracts a great deal of attention from children and passers by.
He donated the sculpture as a thank you to the doctors and nursing staff at the hospital that saved his life when he developed septicemia 18 years ago. He has also donated another sculpture – ‘Mother and Child’ – to the Memorial hospital. It is carved from recycled granite and stands on the approach to the reception area. A third, almost finished piece, is in memory of a nurse at the hospital who worked in the cancer ward and sadly died of cancer herself.
Edwards has a further five granite angels ready to be donated or auctioned off for worthy causes and is presently working on a huge sculpture to be donated to the London Borough of Barnet – a 40-foot high piece entitled ‘Angel of North London’. The council have been extremely supportive of the sculptors work by allowing him the use of a work yard, and local builders have made it possible by supplying granite.
The artist wouldn’t have been able to create his work had it not been for those who assisted with transport and equipment. “They all knew I had very little money and it was the drivers bringing the granite who gave me the nickname of the penniless philanthropist”, he said. “I never thought of myself that way, but I do take it as a compliment.”
Edwards has previously said that he will consider at some point in the future to move ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ to a safe stretch of the Thames where, as the tidal water recedes, the ghostly stone figures will appear. “I would like the installation to remind commuters on their way across the Thames that children are the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society. With the ongoing conflict in Syria, and also beyond in a myriad of other places, it’s vital we don’t forget them”, he said.
“The more we see clips of children drowning and fleeing conflict zones throughout the world, the more numb we become. It’s media fatigue. The unforgivable has become palatable. I hope it will make people ponder for a moment how privileged we are to live in one of the richest and safest democracies on earth, and perhaps consider how they can help more.”
‘Children of the Mediterranean’ will be on view at the Ritterman plinth, Middlesex University, for six months after which Edwards hopes it will be bought and the money donated to a children’s charity of the sculptors choice. If not, Edwards will probably relocate it to the banks of the Thames, although he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of it being moved abroad providing he receives the required funding.