More makers

Since my last update I’ve met up with a further four local makers. The first was fused glass artist (and carpenter) Kim Mylchreest who works from her garden studio to create bowls, plates, wall-art, jewellery, coasters, and anything else glassy you might be able to think of. We talked about the process of learning new skills and perfecting what you do, and making sure the materials are right at every stage. I never knew glass was so versatile and totally fell in love with some beautiful shiny glass called dichroic glass that looked a bit like iridescent fish scales. I also had the opportunity to meet with the basket maker Norah Kennedy in Stroud who told me all about the basket communities she’s become involved with all around the world and taught me loads about different types of basket-making using a wide variety of materials and techniques. Norah also does loads of teaching, and even taught Roy Youdale who I interviewed last year about his basket practice. Visiting Norah was much like visiting a basket museum with her vast collection of baskets from the world over and I was thrilled to be able to learn so much in just one visit.

My most recent interviews were with Sarah Burford and Julian Warren. Sarah is perhaps more widely known as Curious Pip and she makes handcrafted dolls using vintage fabrics and inspiration from 30s showgirls. Self-taught and working from home Sarah started out doing illustrations with the intention to make herself a little pocket money. Two years on and her dolls have become internationally collectable and always in high demand. We talked about the importance of the online community for contemporary makers and where her business might progress next. Sculptor Julian Warren of Metalgnu, on the other hand, has already been welding his creations for twenty years so it was great to hear the contrasts between someone just starting out and someone more established in their trade. Julian’s creations already adorn much of Bristol (in the Botanic Gardens, St Andrews Park, and on Whiteladies Road to name a few locations) and he showed me the latest work soon to be installed at the University. Julian’s sculpture fence is somewhat legendary in the area, and works as both something personal and a free shop-front.

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Above top left to bottom right: Kim Mylchreest’s fused glass heart, Norah Kennedy’s basket-weaving studio, two of Sarah Burford’s dolls, and a sculpture by Julian Warren

It’s nice to have such a variety between the things people are making, whilst at the same time starting to draw out themes that run throughout. For instance, the importance of time is something that comes up a lot, not only in the sense of time taken to learn a craft, but in thinking about how much time goes into each piece, and the impossibility of accurately charging for time. Many creative practitioners, particularly those working from home, have stressed the difficulty of separating themselves from their work, thus making it difficult to define ‘work’ time from ‘free’ time. Following this, then, how does one price something that might have taken 14 hours of actually interacting with the final piece to make, but also had endless hours of mentally planning the work, and years of practice to hone specialist skills? Different makers I’ve spoken to have dealt with this in all sorts of ways and it’s been fascinating to learn about the intricacies of their businesses.

Something else that’s really run throughout each and every interview is the real passion people have for the things they make. An enthusiasm for skill, materials, tradition, and innovation has been at the foreground of our conversations, and there’s been a strong sense of community lying underneath as makers recommend other artists and craftspeople to talk to and visit that they might have worked with, trained under, or simply admired themselves.

To make a start on analysing these themes I’ve been using my new favourite technique – word clouds. By pasting the text you want to analyse into a programme such as wordle you can produce snazzy-looking visual representations which instantly highlight the key issues that came up when talking to someone. The bigger the words appear, the more often they were mentioned. For instance, here’s the word cloud that resulted from my conversation with Sarah last week:

sarah word cloud

As you’d expect, words such as ‘dolls’ and ‘fabric’ loom large, as this is what Sarah’s craft is based around. We can also pick out the themes most influential in her work – ‘vintage’, ’30s’, and  ‘showgirls’ amongst others. I find it interesting that ‘things’ and ‘people’ are two of the largest words, indicating a stark bifurcation in thinking between maker and made which is at the heart of craft discourse. It is precisely this bifurcation that I’m interested in investigating, and potentially flattening out somewhat through drawing on theorists such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour. I’ll save that excitement for another blog post though, this one is plenty long enough as it is.

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Meeting the makers…

This post is seriously overdue….I’ve been promising myself (and others) that’ll I’d write about what I’ve been up to lately with the old PhD, but never actually getting around to it. I’ve been fairly busy lately with meetings, writing conference abstracts, attending knitting circles, visiting pop-up gallery spaces, and, of course, reading, but I’m going to dedicate this post to talking about some of the lovely makers I’ve met over the course of my PhD research so far.

Just to re-cap – my research (as it stands) is around the geographies of craft and crafting practices in Bristol with a primary focus on the pro-am (professional-amateur) movement. As such I am currently in the process of meeting with various artists and craftspeople around the city in their studio spaces (which vary from rented spaces in ‘official’ arts studios to bedrooms and garages in homes). The study overall is based on people with an enthusiasm for materials and I am using this as my way in to look at what a non-human perspective can bring to the characterisation of the craft movement and collective economies more broadly.

To date I’ve met with 7 makers, all of whom have been able to share some fascinating insights into what constitutes the so-called ‘contemporary craft movement’, and have been more than happy to introduce me to their materials, techniques, and work-spaces.

My first crafty conversation was with Jenny Hall (a.k.a. the Mistress of Monsters) and her fabric art creations at the end of last year. We chatted about creative expression, balancing work with crafting, makers economies, and sources of inspiration. Jenny’s a self-taught maker and it was fascinating to talk to her about the drive to create and have the ability to express yourself through assembling materials, rather than simply using words.

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Jenny’s Monsters and Felicity’s Mosaics

Shortly afterwards, I met with Felicity Ball of ‘Just Mosaics‘; another self-taught maker who came across mosaic art on holiday in Venice. After experimenting with different tiles, grouts, shapes, and textures, Felicity has managed to develop a unique and exciting style in her work which she promotes online. Our conversation highlighted the importance of networking, of knowing the limits of your materials when designing, the ‘buzz’ one can get out of making, and the distinctions between art and craft.

My next maker was, in some ways, quite a contrast to my other two. Architectural glass artist Stuart Low trained at Swansea school of art and has since been focused on commissioned projects in the public realm – including churches, hospitals, schools, and restaurants. More recently he’s been selling smaller glass pieces through guilds and local shops. We talked about the importance of process, selecting materials (for example, a preference for hand-blown, rather than machine-rolled, glass), and creating your own style. I couldn’t help be fascinated by the role of tradition inherent in stained-glass architecture, and the way it can be given a modern twist to fit in with contemporary lifestyles.

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Cartoon’s for Stuart’s glass work and one of Kim’s necklaces (and studio space)

Jewellery designer Kim Thomson was my next port of call. Like Stuart, Kim trained professionally at art college after having a long-standing fascination for making. After graduating Kim set up her own Jewellery business, which is now based in her back garden. I was stunned by the range of materials Kim uses in her jewellery making, and especially loved the use of old sweet wrappers to create shiny and eye-catching pieces. Kim also does a lot of teaching (especially at the Bristol Folk House) and it was really interesting to hear about how that feeds back into her own work.

My first ‘duplicate’ maker was Dora McCormack, another architectural glass artist. She too trained at Swansea after deciding she needed a ‘skill’ in life and chose glass work. I learned the importance of getting the balance right between doing your own thing for the love of it and doing what others want you to in order to make a living. Practising and tradition were both topics that came up again, as well as the necessity of passing on skills to ensure they stay alive in our rapidly changing society.

In mid-March I met up with Emily Ketteringham – screen printer (and giant play-house painter) extraordinaire. Once a teacher, Emily took evening courses in print-making before deciding screen printing was what she really loved and decided to ditch teaching and embark on a masters in print work at UWE. Emily specialises in creating intricate screen prints, usually using about 8 different screens per print. We talked about the importance of the local arts trails that run in Bristol, as well as the difficulty with categorising yourself as either and artist or a craftsperson.

My most recent meeting was with the ceramicist Jennifer Orme. She too took a print course at UWE and quickly established that printing on ceramics was the route for her. I had no idea that clay was such a complicated material to work with and remain in awe of the delicate creations she was making. Her garage based studio was the perfect setting for a long natter about the state of craft, and the decisions faced by people wanting to make a living out of their creations.

ImageEmily’s screen print, Dora’s glass, and Jennifer’s ceramic bell 

As you can probably tell, it’s been really interesting talking to some of Bristol’s makers. It feels a bit like I’ve lifted a blanket to find swarms of people busy crafting away underneath. I’ve got a few more meetings lined up in the coming months so I’m hoping to learn even more about what’s going on. I shall endeavour to update accordingly!