The recent International Art Fair for Craft and Design, where Collect Open 2020 was sponsored by Sanlam, promoted the best contemporary art and craft, but there are concerns the UK’s craft skills could be under threat.
Crafts might be enjoying a higher-than-usual profile right now, thanks to popular TV shows like The Great Pottery Throw Down and The Great British Sewing Bee, but there’s real concern that craft skills could be lost to future generations.
If those fears are realised, there would be a wider impact on society than many people would probably appreciate. The Crafts Council has calculated craft skills contribute £3.4 billion to the UK economy1, and it points to research that shows craft can also alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and even dementia.2
The Crafts Council is the national development agency for contemporary crafts in the UK. Funded by Arts Council England, it celebrates its 50th birthday in 2021, and its goal is to make the UK the best place to make, see, collect and learn about contemporary craft.
Caroline Jackman, Talent Development Manager at the Crafts Council, says: “A lot of people’s basic understanding of craft might be that it’s just about knitting groups, basket-weaving and so on, but it actually covers everything from high-end fine art to people earning a living by creating handmade products and innovative design in engineering and medical science.”
Craft and the economy
She continues: “If you ask any craftsperson, they see themselves as an artist, a maker or a designer but it’s hard to define everyone because crafts are so broad. I’d say generally craft is hands-on making, and in mediums including clay, glass, metal, wood or textiles. But it can also include digital technologies when used with physical materials. A good example of that is 3D printing.”
Craft skills and creative design make a contribution towards many industries, says Jackman. “When a company wants to stand out and be visible, they look to creative people to help them do that. That can be car and aircraft interiors, the design of the way the iPhone looks and fashion accessories too – they all need innovation in their products.”
And she says craft is becoming increasingly important as a counterbalance to so much of our lives being spent in front of a computer screen or looking at a smartphone: “We’ve seen real growth linked to craft experiences. People are willing to spend their cash on a day with friends making something. Doing something creative with your hands makes you slow down and engage with yourself and other people.”
Sarah Pulvertaft, Jed Green and Beatrice Mayfield (Collect Open 2020 Exhibitors) worked together to craft these intricate pieces, combining jewellery, metal and embrodiery.
Despite craft being “better understood” in recent years thanks to television coverage, Jackman says the crafts sector faces a major challenge with arts and design subjects not compulsory for schoolchildren after the age of 14. “That’s affecting the numbers taking art and design at GCSE and A-level, and the number of courses in higher education. So, while the UK is currently known for creative innovation and being at the forefront of design and fine arts, that’s going to be affected by the lack of skills coming through because fewer people are taking up art and crafts at an earlier age.”
Nevertheless, the Crafts Council is working closely with schools to ensure they have resources to encourage making skills in schools and it raises awareness of crafts in society generally. A very important part of the Crafts Council’s work is supporting craftsmen and women themselves. Jackman, who is herself a painter and printmaker, says: “At the core of what we do is our makers. We support them at every stage – starting out, doing a craft for a hobby and when it’s their livelihood. We run programmes to ensure they have the right business skills and there are online resources as well.”
Annette Marie Townsend (Collect 2020 Exhibitor) hand crafted these delicate flower sculptures from beeswax.
Craft for collectors
The annual Collect International Art Fair for Modern Craft and Design, another of the Crafts Council’s activities, was staged earlier this year, making its home for the first time at London’s Somerset House.
Isobel Dennis, Collect Fair Director, says: “This was the 16th year of the Collect Fair, so it’s very well established now and presents craft in a fine art context.” The event, at which more than 40 galleries presented new work by artists from all over the world, is very much about selling craft, rather than being an exhibition where people just look. The items on show at Collect were on sale at an average price of between £5,000 and £10,000.
“The calibre of work was exceptional and included ceramics, glass, textiles, wood, paper, jewellery plus much more,” says Dennis.
Among the galleries taking part were a number from South Korea. Dennis was particularly impressed: “They’re steeped in tradition in terms of the techniques and the materials they use, yet they create really exciting contemporary work in lacquerware, ceramics and glass.”
She continues: “There was also a lot of exciting glass from UK artists this year. Glass is hot and it’s molten when you work with it, yet you get these extraordinary pieces out of it. I am in awe of the people who can hone and harness its behaviours to create really beautiful pieces.”
Galerie Marzee from the Netherlands presented large pieces of jewellery using materials not normally associated with that craft, while multicultural collaboration Ting-Ying represented a stable of artists whose diverse works took Blanc de Chine porcelain as an initial starting point of reference.
Julia Griffiths Jones (Collect Open 2020 Exhibitor) combined metal, enamel and large scale textiles to craft the vibrant pieces that she displayed at Collect Open, inspired by her time spent in Africa.
Pushing the envelope
Dotted around Somerset House and interrupting the gallery collections was the stunning work of 12 individual artists who were specially selected for the Collect Open – which was sponsored by Sanlam. Dennis says: “Each is selected after demonstrating ambition to push their own practice.”
Among them was natural history artist Annette Marie Townsend, who highlighted issues that threaten the natural world. Working in collaboration with Scott McArt of Cornell University, who provided her with beeswax found to contain pesticide residues, she crafted delicate wildflower sculptures, listing the pesticides as artist’s materials.
Dennis adds: “Edmond Byrne, who works in glass, and gold and silversmith Adi Toch experimented with how these two very different materials can be pushed together to create rather wonderful pieces – with some amazing outcomes.”
Tal Batit, from Israel, created amazing ‘ceramic carpets’. Dennis says: “They are like large tapestries on the wall but what looks like needlepoint stitching
is actually ceramic.”
But the winner of the Collect Open Award was Margo Selby’s grand-scale series of handwoven artworks, which pushes the boundaries of what she can achieve on her hand loom. Each composition was woven with over 18,000 strands of cotton, Tencel and silk yarns, blended in the construction to create a textural and graphic surface.
Selby’s work was a spectacular winner among a collection of many pieces of high-level craftsmanship.
Don’t worry if you missed the Collect Fair – the Crafts Council has now launched its own permanent gallery. Go and see it as soon as you can at its headquarters in Islington, north London. Check their website for opening times at www.craftscouncil.org.uk.
The Collect Open
The Collect Open, which was sponsored by Sanlam, presents a platform for 12 new installations created by ambitious artists and collectives. It allows the artists to represent themselves through an original body of work made specifically for the Collect Fair. It was won this year by Margo Selby, who was presented with her award
by Sanlam CEO for Private Wealth Penny Lovell. The 12 participants were:
1. Annette Marie Townsend, handmade beeswax sculptures.
2. Paula Reason, embroidered silk panel installation.
3. Adi Toch and Edmond Byrne, a fusion of metal and glass.
4. Jacky Oliver, metalwork (focused on the concept of growing your own food in relation to the environmental challenges the world is currently facing).
5. Julia Griffiths Jones, metal, printed enamel and large-scale textiles.
6. Liana Pattihis and Sofia Björkman, a vertical jewellery installation, 3D drawings and enamelled chain.
7. Linda Bloomfield, lichen effect glazes on porcelain.
8. Lorraine Robson, ceramic installation - dementia awareness.
9. Sarah Pulvertaft, Jed Green and Beatrice Mayfield, jewellery and embroidery.
10. Lucie Gledhill and Kasia Wozniak, metal and photography installation.
11. Margo Selby, large scale textile installation.
12. Tal Batit, ceramic carpet wall installations.