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Clusters #1: Nature in Nottinghamshire

We hope our blog offers ways to explore the people and stories of the Design-Nation community that are not always evident through our social media. Today we launch a new blog series profiling our Cluster Hubs, networks of Design-Nation members who connect regionally (or sometimes by common theme) on a regular basis. There are currently fifteen of these across the UK and we have plans for more.

These Hubs generally number between 10 and 45 designer-makers, who meet IRL or virtually (or both). In creating these networks the Design-Nation team are enabling dozens of small creative businesses (of often just one person) to reach out easily to others – share information, give each other encouragement, act as informal sounding boards and peer mentors, and given capacity for them to develop a wide variety of their own self-led activities and projects – with Design-Nation’s light touch support. Regular blog readers may recall the Cornwall & Devon group’s lockdown-inspired exhibition last year.

Our new series kicks off with a group interview (albeit mostly by email) with the Nottinghamshire cluster. There are 19 makers in this group, in Nottingham and surrounding towns and villages, and they meet weekly, more often than any other of our networks. Ten of the ‘Notts’ group have been working together since mid 2021 on Translating Nature, a multidisciplinary project. Ceramicist Jillian Riley explains, ‘There are three ceramic artists, one lace-maker, two using woven textiles, a silk painter, a felt-maker, a jeweller, and one mosaic and mixed media artist.’

The Theme

After many months of virtual meetings, the group were itching to get out and see real exhibitions again. Lace-maker Jayne Childs (founder of J C Middlebrook) was impressed with a re-curation project at Nottingham Castle and suggested an outing. ‘The re-vamped Long Gallery has begun to display together work from all kinds of different disciplines. The link between the work is often the theme or a colour palette, so there may be ceramics and paintings hung alongside each other.’

This fresh approach proved to be inspiration for all, as feltmaker Rachel Morley recounts: ‘We came up with the idea of creating our own curated exhibition of our work as a group from our various disciplines. In our weekly Zoom meetings following this trip we discussed this possibility and also what common threads our work might share. We even did a poll I think.’

Ceramics artist Sarah Burton agrees that: ‘Deciding on a theme was hard. So many different opinions and ways of working, materials being used etc., but one thing that kept appearing in the discussions was that we were all taking references from nature in our designs, either directly or indirectly. Some members were taking nature’s designs literally and some abstractly, some from historical references.  We had some really interesting discussions.’

Jillian recalls, ‘Sarah-May [Johnson, a weaver] started a conversation about what inspired us as individual artists and it became apparent that all of us, in our different mediums, designed with nature at the core of our finished work. Translating Nature seemed a perfect title for these individual journeys.

‘Nature [was] an important inspiration,’ said Rachel, ‘but seemed far too broad a theme until we came up with the thought that we, in our own individual ways, were actually translating our response to Nature in much of our work, so… our theme was set!’

Silk painter Barinder Gahir noted how suitable the theme was to such a diverse group.  ‘We were all using our own specific skills to ‘translate’ within [our own] discipline.’ Mosaicist Julie Vernon found this stimulating too: ‘It was exciting to see how we each explore and translate this inspiration into our individual work. The piece I submitted for this project was inspired by lockdown walks and the importance of being outdoors and surrounded by nature as part of my own wellbeing.’


Jill says, ‘The aim of this collective project is multi-functional. We wanted to put together a body of work to represent us as the Notts DN group, a group profile, with the ultimate idea of exhibiting the work at a gallery or venue to be decided later. To sit alongside this we wanted to have a printed catalogue of our work and a digital version to be put on a Notts DN website.

‘We will first have professional photographs taken of the work as a collection and then have images taken of each person’s work individually. There will also be a ‘portrait ‘ of the artist in their studio. The catalogue will contain an explanation of the concept of Translating Nature, images of the collection as a whole, and then each artist will have page spreads to show their individual pieces, their portraits and working images that support the maker’s journey towards the finished pieces.’

Sarah agrees about the value of presenting the work as a group, not just as individuals, and working with a professional photographer on their shared imagery. Jeweller Kate Bajic is also keen on improving her connection with other Design-Nation members, and using the project to engage with new audiences.

Each maker is developing her own body of work, but thinking about these common ambitions to exhibit.  Kate said, ‘I am working as an individual maker but hopefully creating pieces which will sit well with other pieces in the Translating Nature exhibition environment.’

Sharing expertise is evident. Jayne says, ‘Everyone is working on their own, but a couple of makers have been supporting each other, so although they aren’t direct collaborations, partnerships have sprung up naturally.’ One of these is between her and Rachel. ‘For my particular project [I approached Jayne to get an understanding of] her lace embroidery skills and knowledge, for the effects I want to achieve.’

Moving Forward

The artworks are all now complete and the group hope to secure a venue for this year or 2023. Jayne is the voluntary group coordinator: ‘The work is currently being photographed individually and together as a display. After this a catalogue will be produced which we can send to venues with the intention that we generate interest in this exhibition.’

This feels like a great point at which to take stock of the project to date. We asked the Translating Nature team about the challenges, and also the positive aspects of working this way, with a large team.

‘Our group works really well together’, said Jill Riley, ‘as we have now been meeting almost every week since lockdown.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses and between us we offer to do the jobs we feel most comfortable doing. It has been a very positive and supportive experience and very enjoyable to see who each other has approached to “brief”.’

Sarah Burton: ‘It has taken a lot of discussion to realise what we wanted to do for this project which was a challenge, but has had a really positive outcome.  The project started as a “photography project” but we wanted to do more than just have photographs taken, we wanted to have a focus for why we were having the photographs taken. In the middle of lockdown it seemed obvious that an online presence would be a good idea so we decided on a website where we can show the photographs and use the opportunity to promote the group and our work and to show the objects we make as we would in an exhibition, as a collection, that we can present to galleries when we are ready to do a live exhibition. We then expanded these ideas to include publishing a book of the photographs.  What started as a small project has grown into something really exciting and special.’

‘It’s been lovely to work with a group of creatives particularly as we are a diverse group with a variety of disciplines,’ says Kate Bajic. The challenges have been working through the logistics of organising everyone and ensuring that we all have the information we need –  many thanks to Jayne and Sarah for being so great at this!’

Barinder Gahir was sad about Covid’s initial impact. ‘We could not meet face to face due to lockdown. On a positive note we were able to meet via zoom every week and get feedback for our work.’

Rachel Morley: ‘There are some challenges to a large group of creative spirits coming together with a common goal. As we meet weekly, we have had plenty of opportunity to discuss any challenges and this has been really helpful in moving the project forwards. We have grown stronger as a group and support each other in many ways. I do feel that this project is becoming a valuable experience for the whole group as we get closer to our goal. Thanks to Jayne Childs and Sarah Burton for leading us in this exciting group project! Personally, I’m really enjoying the journey!’

Regrettably Julie Vernon had other work commitments. ‘I’ve not been able to participate in the weekly zooms and active decision making to build the project. I’m very appreciative that others have been able to drive this forward and make the project happen – it feels good to be part of something. The Notts [private] facebook group has been fantastic in enabling me to keep in touch with activities and I still feel welcome and part of the group despite taking a less active role in this particular project.’

Jayne Childs sums up the journey they’ve made together: ‘With a group, it can take a very long time to make decisions. There is always a level of compromise with group work but I think that the journey is as important as any exhibition outcome to the project.  Some makers have used the opportunity to make completely new work, others are offering work never seen before in real life. We have been meeting weekly on Zoom since the first lockdown and after sharing our highs and lows for so long that we have established a high level of trust and support. For myself, I developed the work as part of a self-imposed research project, but Translating Nature has focused my mind into making work, not reading books!’

The Translating Nature project team are:

Barinder Gahir – textiles

Debbie Barber – ceramics

Jan Garside – textiles

Jayne Childs – textiles

Jillian Riley – ceramics

Julie Vernon – mosaic

Kate Bajic  – jewellery

Rachel Morley – textiles

Sarah Burton – ceramics

Sarah-May Johnson – textiles

We’re very much looking forward to seeing what these makers have created as a group, and wish them every success with the publication of their catalogue and securing an exhibition venue.

Images courtesy the artists

Works by: J C Middlebrook

Julie Vernon

Kate Bajic

Rachel Morley

Sarah May Johnson

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Laura Jacometti


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