We run monthly discussions on a variety of themes for our members, with guest speakers giving us professional insights into many areas of craft and design practice. (Some guests also run courses for us – read more about that here.)
Our most recent guest was maker-turned-curator Gregory Parsons, whose thoughtfully conceived exhibitions are always a joy to experience. His current show Monochrome, at Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales, includes two DN members: textile designer Anna Gravelle and blacksmith/knife-maker Leszek Sikon. We had a lot of interest from our members in Greg’s work and so we asked him to write for our blog.
Design-Nation: Please tell us something about your background and how you came to be a curator.
Greg Parsons: After my first degree at Derby in the early 1990s. I successfully applied for a residency at Ruthin Craft Centre in north Wales. I was there for two years and produced a large body of textile pieces for a solo touring exhibition (A Contemporary Voice – Weave by Greg Parsons). During my time there I helped with the installation of exhibitions to earn a bit of extra money. This was a really informative period in my career, which I realised later when after completing my MA at the RCA in 1997, when I worked for the Crafts Council’s trading team at the London HQ in Islington. Again I was working with all forms of craft and started to put small showcase exhibitions together for the Islington shop.
Several years later after working for a textile mill in Switzerland, an interiors textile company in London and then the fashion industry, I came back into the crafts fold and began working for Ruthin again on a consultancy basis when their new Centre and galleries opened in 2008. I was asked to curate my first exhibition for them in 2009 and have been working with them regularly ever since, as well as with other organisations including the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh and The Goldsmiths’ Company.
DN: How do you develop themes for exhibitions? In particular what was the trigger for the Monochrome show?
GP: Themes for exhibitions come from various places. Sometimes through discussions with the venue I am working with, or things will formulate for me as I gather information and images on work and makers through my constant visits to fairs and exhibitions throughout the year(s). I have curated a lot of group shows where I might link through, for example, pieces for the interior or on a particular genre (for example lighting), and in 2016 one show for Ruthin was titled Making in Colour. I was looking, as the title suggests, at how people were treating and expressing colour in their work.
Monochrome is a reaction to that show several years later. I was seeing a lot of monochromatic work and thought it would be really interesting to study that as a theme as the opposite of the colour theme in the past – looking at how surface texture and mark making came to the fore. The result is I hope a really exciting collection of makers’ work in various genres that is a visual feast in black and white.
DN: The exhibition includes a wide variety of craft media. How did you identify artists for the show?
GP: Again this is down to my continuing search for new makers at fairs and exhibitions, looking online and also following people I have known for some time, to see what they are developing. I like to bring new makers to audiences: so for example in putting a show together for Ruthin, I’m asking myself which makers have Ruthin’s audiences seen before, and who is going to bring something new to the table? I am also passionate about giving emerging makers a platform, and so if their work is strong enough, I put it alongside makers who are well established in their field. The ‘bigger’ names may bring in the audience, who will then get to meet newer people; everyone needs the chance to blossom and grow. Key though is that the work is good – well thought through, designed and skillfully made.
DN: Monochrome include DN members Anna Gravelle and Leszek Sikon – please tell us about working with them on content for the show.
GP: Both Anna and Leszek were makers I had met in the past and had wanted to exhibit. Monochrome gave me the opportunity to invite them as the theme fitted well with their work. I was introduced to Anna’s work at New Designers One Year In several years ago (and later met her at another exhibition) and Leszek was part of a blacksmithing exhibition at Ruthin called ‘Forge’ that had been curated by Delyth Done of Hereford College. (I had worked with her on pulling the show together and Leszek was a recent graduate). I followed both Leszek’s and Anna’s work though Design-Nation showcases at Decorex and London Craft Week. Both are incredibly professional and great to work with. I had seen work that I liked and asked what they might have available for the exhibition – which was then postponed several times due to the pandemic, so it was challenging for everyone. They both came up with the goods, of course!
DN: You’ve made many exhibition projects for Ruthin Craft Centre over the years – are there any you are particularly proud of?
GP: Particular shows I am proud of…. hmm, that’s tricky! Not Too Precious sticks in my mind from 2015, which I co-curated with Dr. Elizabeth Goring (former curator of modern jewellery at National Museums Scotland). This was an exhibition of international jewellery by makers working with materials other than those traditionally termed as precious (silver, gold and the like) and we produced a great book to accompany it.
Another was W is for Wallpaper which was also co-curated with a fellow independent curator and writer Jane Audas, also in 2015. This was a survey of wallpapers from the UK and made for a stunning installation in the large gallery at Ruthin.
Finally I was particularly pleased with a show on lettering and calligraphy from 2019 called Lettering: Art & Illusion. Many years ago I was taught how to cut letters in both stone and several calligraphic hands, so I always wanted to put an exhibition together featuring both. As I had had that grounding I was familiar with some names, and then I researched others, both via the relevant societies and by talking to contemporary artists which whom I had worked before on other group show projects.
DN: What’s next? Do you think exhibition curation in craft is changing in any way? Is there a dream exhibition you’d like to curate?
GP: I would like the opportunity to work with other venues as I find it fascinating to work with different people and reach new audiences. Hopefully this is something I can develop going forward. It is quite tricky to fund independent curatorial projects without the umbrella of, for example, an academic institution where money can be found, so applications for research and staging is something I will be looking to explore further. That I think is one of the key challenges as funding becomes more and more scarce. I worry that the long lasting effects of the pandemic will filter down to make that situation perhaps more tricky.
On a more positive note though I think there is an appetite for engagement with ‘real’ rather than virtual art and craft, now that things are slowly opening up, so I look forward to meeting those challenges head on. A dream exhibition… I need to think some more on that one… and sometimes it’s good to keep the good ideas closer to one’s chest!
Interview by Liz Cooper