Essay by Sara Roberts
This book illuminates contemporary craft practice in Wales through the work of a selection of key practitioners: Welsh artists, and artists with origins elsewhere who have elected to live and work in Wales. In the field of contemporary applied art, all are of significant national standing and many have achieved international acclaim. The work they encompass can be characterised by its diversity, innovation and high quality of production. They work with the visual and physical vocabulary of media traditionally associated with hand working and skilled practice: metal, wood, textiles, ceramics, glass, but they have each brought to these traditions and to the training they have received an independent and original vision which takes their work well beyond the traditional. They are not solely working within the conventions of craft practice, but examining them and expanding the boundaries.
The products here are finely honed examples of good design, made with skill and often laborious hand processes developed over many years. They are identifiably the work of individuals, who concentrate on high quality products to distinguish their work from mass production pieces and imports from countries where hand labour is cheap. These artists concern themselves with the making of objects of great beauty and ingenuity: a finely-wrought metal bowl, a hand-thrown cup with pinpoints of decoration, an installation of glass which fills a building with colour, a textile of original design and fine workmanship with which we can adorn ourselves. The works may be sensual, ingenious, witty; they are novel, innovative, experimental; they have the potential to enhance our environment in terms of our personal and our public space, to adorn our homes and our bodies. They remind us of the potential of individual human creativity, they bear the mark of the hand of the maker, and they are set apart from the majority of the manufactured objects we encounter everyday.
Wales is a small country, with a stunning landscape. The majority of its boundary is coastline, with a border with England and traditionally strong links with the other Celtic countries. It inspires great passion: it instils 'Hiraeth', a sense of deep longing, or homesickness, in its countrymen, which has caused many craftspeople to return after establishing their careers elsewhere, including, from this selection, the textile artists Cefyn Burgess and Eleri Mills. It has also attracted many makers to choose it as a place to settle, as its environment is conducive to certain lifestyles and ways of thinking. The basket maker Dail Behennah works from her Bristol studio but finds her west Wales home creatively inspiring; while another basketmaker, Susie Vaughan, weaves locally-sourced hedgerow trimmings into her work. Elizabeth Abbey incorporates sketches of her Anglesey locale and found natural objects into her resin jewellery pieces.
In the 1970s many makers were attracted to establish studios in rural Wales because of the low cost of living, and to escape the rat race of competitive urban living. Wales was relatively isolated due to poor communication links, but its tourist industry provided a steady flow of purchasers to small scale studio workshops which made them just sustainable. Today, makers are as likely to establish their studios in the principality because of a buzzing cultural life, because of the availability of shared studio space with like-minded artists in Cardiff and elsewhere, because of a loyalty and pride in a vibrant national creative scene. With Devolution and the formation of the Welsh Assembly in 2000, the national identity can be seen to be maturing independently, allowing it to contribute to the creative industries of Europe and to form cultural alliances with other nations. The longstanding permeability of the border with England is less of an issue than the dissolution of European borders and easy communication with the rest of the world. With the enhanced opportunities of the global comes a heightened awareness of the local, an appreciation of national and regional differences and the particularity of a culture. Thus the audience and market for the work of the makers discussed here is just as likely to be international as local, and contact afforded by the internet has broadened the field still further.
Craftspeople need to operate both as creative artists and as successful businesspeople, for whom economic stability, access, opportunity for display and a ready market are essential. There are long-standing incentives to establish craft-based businesses in Wales. The Arts Council of Wales (ACW) is responsible for funding and developing the arts in Wales and it actively promotes contemporary crafts. It operates a grant scheme to which recently established makers can apply, providing vital seed funding at the beginning of their careers; together with grants for more established makers for training or to fund research time; all this as well as a package of support and training, including wider promotion through a partnership agreement with the UK Crafts Council based in London. Wales based craftspeople can benefit from advocacy and endorsement provided by the Crafts Council, and representation on its Photostore, a visual database containing over 40,000 images of the work of contemporary British makers, which is consulted by curators, collectors and public art commissioning bodies. The service is accessible via terminals at a growing number of strategic venues across the UK.
The partnership of ACW and the Crafts Council also provides advisory services for craftspeople and their potential employers, and strategic funding including interest-free loans to mid-career artists, for research and travel. The ceramicist David Binns undertook research study visits to India, Nepal, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States with the support of ACW in 1999; and Julia Griffiths Jones and Ann Catrin Evans have also received ACW travel research awards. Textile designer Cefyn Burgess has recently been funded by Wales Arts International (WAI) to visit the USA and further his research in Pennsylvania, and Catherine Lewis also received WAI support to research textile opportunities in France. There are yet further, charitable funds available such as the Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship, recently given to metalworker Matthew Tomalin. ACW's grant schemes also offer funding for collectives such as studio groups: there is a wealth of new makers estalishing practices in Wales at the moment, a lot of whom are working together; Parc Glynllifon in Caernarfonshire has had an influx of makers recently, and there are new studio facilities as part of the Caernarfon harbourside development; a jewellery studio has formed on a farm just outside Usk, and there are thriving studio premises at Model House Craft and Design Centre in Llantrisant.
Makers from Wales regularly exhibit at one of the highlights of the British crafts calendar, the Craft Council's Chelsea Crafts Fair in London, a stringently selected presentation of the work of over 200 of the finest makers in the UK. In 2002, Welsh makers caused a significant ripple in this small pool which is the cream of British small scale craft production: Ann Catrin Evans, who works in forged metal to make decorative and functional objects and highly individual door furniture, was awarded a First Time Exhibitor Award; Anna Lewis was shortlisted for the prestigious Janet Fitch Jewellery Award, and jeweller Pamela Rawnsley was shortlisted for the British Crafts Council in Japan Award.
While all these makers show in public and private galleries throughout the UK, and may have established commercial connections overseas, much work has been done in the past fifteen years or so to develop the home market. Sustained presentation of high quality contemporary craft has been a vital stimulus to sale of work within Wales: there are notable and well-established retail/gallery outlets with a reputation for craft in Ruthin Craft Centre, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno, Model House Craft and Design Centre and The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and the Mission Gallery, both in Swansea. Ruthin Craft Centre in particular originates exhibitions which circulate widely to specialist venues across England and and Scotland as well as Wales, allowing the work of Welsh makers to be promoted widely, and placing the work of Welsh makers into a broader national and international context. In 1985 ACW pioneered the principle of specialist interest-free loans for the purpose of purchasing art and craft from selected galleries with its Collectorplan scheme, an initiative which has thrived and expanded in Wales, stimulating the craft retail market, and which has been emulated elsewhere in the UK.
There are superb study collections of historic and contemporary applied art collections in Wales, particularly of ceramics, in venues such as the National Museum of Wales and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. The Aberystwyth Ceramic Archive is one of the finest studio ceramic collections in Britain, particularly strong in very early twentieth century and contemporary work.
There is an acknowledged demand for specialist craft publications, particularly monographs examining the careers of established artists, and Ruthin Craft Centre has met this through its well designed and copiously illustrated exhibition catalogues. They have insightful essays which expand an understanding of the place of Welsh makers in the context of the contemporary craft scene, and therefore have significantly longer shelf lives than the exhibitions they document. There is also demand from makers for topical information on the sector: opportunities, exhibitions, funding news, and this is met by the quarterly ACW periodical Crefft and the bimonthly UK publication Crafts.
Wales has a unique annual cultural festival, the National Eisteddfod, which is held on alternate years in the north and south of Wales in different host towns. The standard of work submitted to the independent judging panels for the Eisteddfod Visual Art and Craft Exhibition has soared in recent years, and established artists and makers are attracted by the high quality of the exhibition, with the added incentive of substantial monetary awards and the prospect of the prestigious Gold Medal in Craft and Design. The roll call of previous gold medallists includes, from the makers featured here, Eleri Mills, Morgen Hall, Cefyn Burgess, Ann Catrin Evans, Steve Howlett, Catrin Howell, David Binns, Christine Jones and Claire Curneen. The Eisteddfod exhibition provides Welsh makers with an annual national forum of the highest quality, together with aspirational goals for young makers. There are numerous other festivals held in Wales, such as the International Ceramic Festival at Aberystwyth, a focus for collective workshops and demonstrations, which enhances the sense of community of professional ceramicists and places them in an international context.
Wales has a small but significant number of excellent higher educational institutions for the pursuit of craft based courses, which not only provide vital teaching employment for makers, in turn stimulating and enhancing the quality of undergraduate practice, but a steady stream of talented graduates and postgraduates, many of whom settle into professional practice in the vicinity. The Ceramics Department at University of Wales Institute Cardiff is a fine example. It has many highly regarded alumni who now form part of Wales’s community of crafts practitioners, including Morgen Hall who recently completed a three-year research fellowship there, and Daniel Allen and Irish ceramist Claire Curneen who together founded Fireworks Studios in Cardiff.
The traditional handicrafts of Wales have been highlighted and reworked with great style and wit by contemporary makers. The textile designer Cefyn Burgess works with traditional woollen mills, stimulating their output and their market with vivid new designs, and Lowri Davies uses Welsh icons as motifs on her ceramic pieces. The archetype of the Welsh souvenir industry, the carved wooden lovespoon, has been reinterpreted by the metalworker Ann Catrin Evans into a highly successful and original series of Love Tokens. Welsh applied artists are ready for new audiences for their work. This diverse, stimulating collection of images makes clear their potential in a broader international context.