Artists' profiles 2
Artists' profiles 2
Frances Lord pulls together themes and strands that emerge from sixteen newly-commissioned interviews, which reflect the sheer diversity of working practice within the applied arts.
This essay pulls together just some of the many strands and themes that emerged from sixteen fascinating and revealing interviews. The artists were chosen to illustrate a broad range of materials and approaches; some artists are early career, others mid career or well established; seen together they can be said to celebrate the sheer diversity of, and provide a window on, current practice within the applied arts. Work produced is often challenging and exploits the potential of the chosen material to the full. Objects created might have metaphorical meanings or social or cultural connotations or exploit physical qualities such as light and colour. One-offs, functional and sculptural works, product design, batch and limited edition work, furniture and exhibition design, lighting, public art and installation work are all represented. Traditional craft materials, techniques and skills combine with new technologies; cross disciplinary work is common, as is the conscious referencing, and reinterpreting, of specific craft histories, such as ceramics and textiles.
Dedication to research and the development of new ideas, whether through residencies, commissions or academic research is a common thread. Often self-initiated, these periods of study and reflection in a conducive environment are seen as essential for moving work on at whatever stage in an artists career.
It can be argued that craft, if defined as the application of learned and applied skill to the process of making, is an essential element of much, if not all, artistic and creative production, whether it be architecture, sculpture, filmmaking, or printmaking. Richard Sennett describes craft in his recent book The Craftsman an exploration of the contribution made by craft in, and to, society as being as vital to the healthy functioning of modern societies as it has been historically. Architects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Caruso St John also stress the role and contribution of craft processes in the design and detailing of their building projects.
Markets for selling work are crucial and the opportunities for showcasing work are as diverse, developed and sophisticated as any within the broad visual arts sector. Events such as the Crafts Council organised Origin and Collect are important for showcasing object-based work. High profile exhibitions such as Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft at the V&A bring in wide audiences and, although it is unlikely many who visit will be aware of current debates within the crafts, raise fundamental questions about the nature of contemporary craft and challenge accepted notions of terms and concepts such as the handmade, skill, process, and technique.
The traditional routes of selling through craft galleries, fairs and exhibitions are long gone and cross art-form collaboration, maker-led initiatives, interventions into the public realm, site-specific and installation works, and the exploitation of new technologies is as much in evidence within the crafts/design sector as any other branch of the visual arts. Patronage through Crafts Council schemes such as Next Move and Development Award and prizes and awards such as Jerwood have provided many with practical support as well as a formal umbrella or framework for their practice.
Questioning about choice of materials and process will always be relevant and revealing, whatever an artists background. Some artists continue to explore the limits and potential of their chosen material to the full, others will chose whichever material or materials are appropriate to the project in hand. For artists such as Anne Brodie and Deirdre Nelson, who do not wish to be defined by a specific material, the importance of process is paramount; however for others the choice of material is crucial. Nelson, whose work crosses boundaries between traditional craft and contemporary art and for whom research and ideas determine the choice of techniques and methods of presentation..., will use the media that communicate most appropriately the particular story she wants to tell.
Reflections on the relevance of making in a modern technological world emerge in several profiles. Michael Marriott speaks eloquently about the value of a making background and craft production, and what a craft approach can offer an object compared with industrial production. He has great respect for what he refers to as the freedom of craft production, describing himself as a designer, but always keeping a toe in the craft world.
I spend a lot of time observing and studying things and the world, analysing objects consciously and unconsciously in terms of material, function, use, misuse, form, colour, texture, finish, fixings, age, patina, junctions of line and material.
For Chien-Wei Chang functional objects and utensils and their cultural connotations are important as a resource and as an inspiration and he tries to transfer the most humble daily object into a meaningful artwork with an almost spiritual quality. For jeweller Adam Paxon making is a thinking activity, requiring sensitivity, agility and control of an idea. Working with plastics which are laminated then subsequently sculpted, Paxon believes the eye to hand to object relationship is crucial to the finished piece.
Making, indeed the pleasure of making, remains at the heart of weaver Eleanor Pritchards practice:
Ive never put anything into production without sampling it first... I do think you have to see it for real... the volume of fabric as it comes off the loom.
Just as there is no one craft history, there is no one history of individual craft genres. Revisiting and reinterpreting craft histories and the exploration of individual material histories is a rich research strand as evidenced in, for example, the ceramics of Tanner and Twomey or the textiles of Samanidou and Pritchard.
For weaver Eleanor Pritchard a recent project led to research at the V&A textile collections, combining her interest in textiles with those developed during her first degree in History. A new range of techniques, adding to her existing vocabulary, resulted in traditional skills like lacemaking and embroidery being re-interpreted in a contemporary context.
Many successful projects are a testament to the benefits and rewards of collaboration an essential way of working for many, whether with graphic designers (eg Michael Marriott) or with architects (eg Peter Freeman).
For Peter Freeman the parameters for each new piece are set by the context and location as well as working with teams of building professionals, who inform the design, site and production of the work:
I love working in the built environment with architectural practices. There are issues about how you fine-tune what you do within the field... recognising your strengths and weaknesses, which is often learnt through experience.... (with) every commission you are stepping into the unknown.
For Pritchard a commission for a series of hand-woven architectural screens for the new National Trust headquarters in Swindon was a milestone giving her increasing confidence not only in making work on an architectural scale, but also through working closely with architects, project managers and a mentor.
Public art, installation and site-specific work in a variety of contexts is, as might be expected, a rich and rewarding area of practice. For some, such as Clare Twomey and Linda Florence, the active involvement of the public is an important element in creating meanings and associations for their work.
Florences sugar floor installations and dances, and her interest in creating a visual record of the passing of time fits well with current trends in commissioning temporary ephemeral works, as well as the publics enthusiasm for such works. For Departure New Explorations in Print, 2006, she was commissioned to make a sugar floor outside in the courtyard of London Printworks in Brixton, the dance for which was recorded on CCTV camera, and shown during the London Design Festival.
The inspiration for Florences sugar dances, which involve precision and working with assistants, originates from the tea dances she was taken to by her grandfather and recollections of the sugary cakes and icing sugar designs as well as the tracking, weaving, waltzing and circular movements created over the surface of the dance floor.
Much of Twomeys practice involves the making of large-scale site-specific ceramic interventions for galleries, museums and other, often historic, sites. For Trophy, commissioned by the V&A, 4,000 small casts of birds, made in the famous Wedgwood Jasper Blue clay in Twomeys studio, were placed on the sculptures and on the floor of the V&A's Cast Court. There were no labels explaining the artists intentions but members of the public were encouraged to take away a bird. The actions and reactions of 4,000 people who did were recorded and people could inform the artist of the ultimate whereabouts of the birds by email.
Residencies provide a fertile environment to research, explore new territory and develop significant bodies of new work for many artists, including Anne Brodie who spent nearly three months on an International Artists Fellowship in Antarctica and feels the experience will still be informing my work 10 years from now.
Often the impetus for applying for a residency is just to stop, reflect and temporarily escape the pressures and demands of deadlines. For ceramicist Andrea Walsh the question was how can I keep [the work] fresh?, a difficult enquiry to pursue within the home studio environment. At the fifty-acre site at Cove Park in Argyll and Bute Walsh decided to spend her time totally dedicated to her practice; to reflect, and decide in which direction to go. She took equipment with her, but spent the first month walking, allowing time to explore the area. The lack of a rigid timescale was daunting, and the concern that three months might pass by without accomplishing anything was a real one.
The experience of Cove Park was more than three months in an extraordinary setting. She sees it now as a luxury, albeit a necessary one, to have that time out to allow ideas to develop, to filter and refine.
Practice-based and academic research is beginning to reveal new thinking and evidence about the role and value of the crafts in education. Jeweller Cynthia Cousens teaching post at the University of Brighton has taken two directions: her own practice-based research, and a series of pedagogical research projects, funded by The Centre of Excellence for Teaching and Learning through Design, looking at how educators teach and students learn in craft disciplines in higher education. These include Exploring and teaching through practice, which examines how craft practice is taught, and at teaching through demonstration; and See what Happens, with partner institutions the RCA and the V&A, which examines the role of creative experimentation through materials.
Clare Twomey is engaged in a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research fellowship with the University of Westminster, entitled Installation, Clay and Craft, researching the durability of cross boundary works in the craft sector and their relationship to current practice in the wider visual arts. Evidence from these and other projects will, one hopes, eventually feed back into the teaching environment.
Many, but certainly not all, artists relish a brief and the opportunity to be creative within the confines of that brief. For example Marriotts witty Chip Chop Slice Serve cheeseboard/serving platter doubling up, after cheese, as a ping pong bat, is a good illustration; where the brief for the project was to design an object for limited edition batch production of between fifty and 100, selling between £5 and £50, and to test the product. Tanner speaks too of the challenge of giving a new twist to an established product, combining contemporary design with heritage.
For Tanner and Marriott there is an awareness of the tensions inherent in crossing the boundaries between the world of the individual maker and the world of industry, and the challenges an individual can face in coordinating small-scale batch production with the attention to detail required. Tanner maintains the passion behind the piece should be discernible in the end product: these ambitions and ideals however can be difficult to achieve in our age of mass-produced, cheap, readily available imports.
Eagerness to embrace the future, whatever challenges or rewards that future might bring, emerges from all the interviews. For Twomey the future is selecting itself, for others, such as Tanner, the future is in experimentation with new materials.
Many speak about the importance of risk taking; for Brodie risk taking is really important, you have got to do it and it doesnt matter if you fail... the more risks I have taken, the more I realise what the advantages of it are you always learn something, you always get something unexpected and for Paxon, with reference to taking part in a prize or any big project, there is always a risk, and if risk does not exist, there cannot be success or gain.
Maintaining a flexible approach to new opportunities and generating work are also seen as crucial, as are being proactive, open and self-confident.
For Walsh Stepping into the unknown... does scare me, but my view is that I need to challenge myself. It is absolutely necessary to do something new in order to continue and develop my practice... to keep things moving. Michael Marriott, who does not consciously follow a particular route and prefers the flexibility of working on a wide variety of projects, feels a lack of categorisation is an important factor in interesting projects coming his way.
For Florence the challenges of being an artist are learning as you go along, working on bigger and bigger pieces, learning to work with others, subcontracting and being honest about options and costs. Making time, space and budgeting for creating and playing, by whatever means, is seen as essential to the development of new ideas for all profiled artists. Good networks and support, conversation, and opportunities for critical debate and mentoring are also sought and, rightly, valued highly.
The content of these profiles reveal the rewards and challenges faced by a group of artists who grapple in diverse and fascinating ways with the complexities and ambiguities of our modern world; and offer new interpretations and commentaries on the rich and varied world of art, craft and design. Perhaps Fred Baiers statement is one to end with:
I stick to no rules but try to be a man of my time making objects of now. All means of expression, in whatever medium, are appropriate to my intention.
Frances Lord is a consultant and curator based in East Sussex specialising in public art and commissioning. Her background is in the crafts and she worked at the Crafts Council from 1984 1994. She now works with a range of individuals and organisations including local authorities, environmental agencies, museums and galleries initiating, developing and managing projects. She runs seminars on Negotiating Public Art Commissions and mentors visual and applied artists wishing to gain experience and develop their practice in public art. She co-curated Jewellery is Life and Prickings for Fabrica, the contemporary visual arts gallery in Brighton.
She is Public Art Advisor to West Sussex County Council, an Associate for Artpoint and a Commissions Advisor for Axis. In April 2008 she was invited to lecture on public art at the Meiji University, Tokyo as part of their Foreign Scholar Invitation Programme.
Frances Lord is a curator and consultant based in East Sussex with a background in the applied arts who specialises in developing and managing public art and commissioning projects. She co-curated ‘Jewellery is Life’ and ‘Prickings’ for Fabrica in Brighton. Frances works with organisations including local authorities, environmental agencies, healthcare trusts, and directly with artists, initiating, developing and managing projects. She runs seminars on ‘Negotiating Public Art Commissions’ and mentors visual and applied artists wishing to gain experience and develop their practice in public art. In 2008 Frances lectured on public art at Meiji University, Tokyo as part of their ‘Visiting International Scholar Programme’. She is an artistic assessor for Arts Council England specialising in craft, design and public art.
First published: a-n Collections June 2008
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