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In conversation with Sarah James, Director of The Contemporary Craft Festival

At the beginning of June, The Contemporary Craft Festival at Bovey Tracey opens its doors again for the 11th year.  I caught up with the Festival’s organiser and founder Sarah James to see how the show has grown and gone from strength to strength over the last decade to become a key event in the Crafts calendar.

  1. SP: The CCF at Bovey Tracey is now in its 11th year, and you’ve been involved right from the beginning.  How do the early shows compare to the scale of the event today?  Did you think that the location would limit the audience or exhibitor breadth?

SJ: I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to achieve in Bovey Tracey.  I wanted to create an event that would introduce new people to craft and to also satisfy the die hard fanatic!  My mantra is Quality, Quality, Quality.  Whether it be the makers, the street food, the children’s workshops, the street theatre, demonstrators, even the marquees and the Giant Hat Tipi.  It has to look good and presented consistently.

I wanted The Craft Festival to become a nationally important event and I wanted to combine the quality of makers that were found at the Chelsea Craft Fair (which later became Origin) with the activity and education of Art in Action. It never really occurred to me that being in rural Devon would limit the audience.  I was a maker for a number of years and gallery owner so I had lots of great contacts and I had the ultimate partner in the Devon Guild.  Makers were crying out for a great event in the South West and it’s had amazing support from the word go.  Devon and Bovey Tracey has a long history of making, particularly ceramics and cloth so there is a huge appreciation for craft in the area.

  1. SP: What do you think accounts for the success of the Festival?

SJ: The quality and diversity of the makers makes the event successful.  I live and breathe what I do and I am more excited and committed to the event than ever.

  1. SP: What sets it apart from other contemporary craft events, do you think that the show has replaced the gap that the Origin show has now left?

SJ: Obviously the quality of maker is key but I think it’s the down-to-earth, friendly atmosphere sets it apart. It’s an easy event to be a part of, easy for exhibitors to set up, great fun for visitors, parking is free and close by, we provide a camping field for exhibitors and it’s in an idyllic location.  I also take a very personal approach and make sure I introduce myself to every stand holder. I think it’s important to be visible and friendly, I sincerely want everyone to be successful.  Regarding Origin, makers who did Origin have always done the Festival.  As the event has grown over the years, we have attracted more and more excellent makers.  Makers come from Scotland, Ireland, London, Manchester, Cardiff and all over the UK to sell their work.

  1. SP: I read that you are highly oversubscribed every year, are you happy to contain the current size of exhibitors or is there a plan to expand the show?

SJ: The event has grown quietly over the years.  We had 140 stands in 2004 and we now have 202 this year plus about 30 additional stands including trade stands, exhibitions, lecture theatre in a large tipi, demonstrators & workshop venues for adults and children.  So it’s grown quite a lot.  Any bigger and the public are too overwhelmed with choice.

SP: You’ve support  Fired Up in the past, the national scheme to bring clay back into schools, is this still a big part of the event or do you continually support a campaign like this each year?

SJ: We’ve supported a variety of national campaigns over the years.  Currently, we’re welcoming back Hothouse participants from the Crafts Council’s mentoring scheme.  We are also showcasing courses from Plymouth College of Art and we also give new makers their first opportunity to show in a large event via our One Year On scheme.  Learn Devon, who provide our adult workshop programme, also have an opportunity to exhibit students work.  I could write an essay about our various children’s educational partners, past and present, which include Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Devon Artists Network, Devon Artists In Schools Initiative, Crafts Council’s Craft Club, Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre, Devon Weavers Workshop and the Devon Guild’s Big Hand, Little Hand scheme.

  1. SP: You’re also involved in UK Handmade, Made by Hand on Line organising skills workshops, craft resources and makers directory and the Nourish festival, is there no end to your energy for supporting and promoting craft?  Anymore plans to expand your reach online and out of the West Country?

SJ: I’m a regular contributor to UKHandmade magazine; they are very supportive of my events.  I founded with Katie Honnor in 2010.  Katie has ran the site single handedly for some time, so all the success of the site is down to her.  I opened The Craft Festival Shop on Bovey Tracey High Street last November, which is going really well.  The shop sells a variety of makers from The Festival.  I also run another large craft event in Cardiff called Made by Hand (October 31-November 2, 2014).  The event is in its 4th year, but it’s the first year at Cardiff  City Hall.  It’s supported by Arts Council of Wales, Visit Wales, Cardiff Council and John Lewis.

The first Nourish Festival is being held in Bovey in September, it’s the first food and craft fair with classical music concerts I’ve organised, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.  I’m also on the advisory Board for Ocean studios, a new studio development for 60 artists in Plymouth and I’m a trustee of Bovey Tracey Youth Action.  No plans to do more work.  Less would be a good idea, but unlikely as I struggle to say no.  Especially to my children!

More details can be found here about this years Crafts at Bovey Tracey
For further details about Made by Hand click here

Interviewed by our resident Designer on Design Sue Pryke.

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Laura Jacometti



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