Concluding our blog series on the stories behind our exhibition Design-Nation: Our Journey, this month we explore the third theme, Diversity, and how our team and exhibitors interpret and celebrate this within craft and design practice. (Our previous blogs have look at the themes of Excellence and Sustainability.)
In developing the themes for Our Journey, it was important to our curatorial team to celebrate the incredible breadth of craft and design practice across the Design-Nation portfolio – the rich array of materials, processes, knowledge, experience and resulting objects that are created. The team also hoped very much to give wide representation of makers and designers, by location, gender, age, sexuality, family circumstance and background, although these are obviously secondary considerations to the artworks themselves.
As we put the project together we mused on the value of diversity in craft and design. Now that the show’s open to the public we’ve asked our exhibitors for their thoughts.
We asked first, what makes for diversity in craft practice? For mosaic designer Julie Vernon, it’s about the materials: “Diversity relates to the scope and variety of materials to work with, which the medium of mosaic lends itself very well to. Mosaic is about the piecing together of different materials and in this work, I combined unglazed porcelain tiles with river rocks, natural marble, found beach ceramic and metal pieces.”
By contrast, glass artist Helen Slater Stokes felt diversity is about methods, and something more: “…a practice that draws on a wide range of influences and experiences. From the range of materials and techniques employed, to the concepts and issues the work addresses. This is a practice that can also work across audiences and cultures, for example via community workshop activities, galleries, and public artworks, making creativity accessible and visible to a wide range of locations and cultural backgrounds.”
Maker of unique sculptural objects Michaela McMillan echoed both Julie and Helen in her response. “For me it’s about a distinction in my work, that makes it stand out and be different from the rest. I want it to be out of place and to bring something new to the conversation. I want to create a reaction in the viewer, any reaction. Only using recycled materials is my part in the conversation about how disposable we are with ‘stuff’ – an unwanted object for one person is an intake-of-breath treasure to someone else.”
Japanese-born weaver Momoka Gomi enjoys diversity as inclusion in provision of opportunities. “The opportunity to learn, buy the materials you need, create, and participate in exhibitions usually costs us a lot. How many opportunities were there for you? The diverse creative practice means giving opportunities to those who did not have a chance. I am very impressed that there is a lot of funding and scheme available for apprentices representing BAME in the UK. I feel we Japanese have been fortunate. We have been given a fair amount of opportunities to present our work and ourselves, especially in the craft and design sector.”
AN OPEN MIND
Textile artist Myra Hutton reflected on the big themes exposed through her collaboration with designer Nick Rawcliffe. “Looking beyond who is making, but celebrating creativity with an open mind. We are all on personal creative journeys shaped by different starting points, experiences, influences and opportunities. Each individual path will have its twists and turns, some easier than others, but often they will meet and find common ground to embrace ideas of ‘what if’ as they cross over; that’s when you can learn from each other, work together, experiment with fresh eyes and reach new outcomes.”
Myra and Nick were placed together through Design-Nation’s 2020 Covid-response buddying scheme. She said, “The collaboration with Nick came out of the blue, our pairing was blindly drawn and we hadn’t known each other’s practice beforehand. Once we realised the opportunity to create a joint piece I pushed my work to his theme, ignoring my usual need for colour by concentrating on the texture and shape, and Nick fully embraced my craft in his design. I think we were both amazed by the result.”
Myra continues, “We have just created another smaller moon: this time natural colouring has crept in representing the seas on the moon. This has been achieved through my use of more British-bred wools, in my attempt to further address sustainability in my practice.” Sustainability is of course another key theme in Our Journey.
So it’s evident that diversity can be seen though many lenses – diverse definitions in fact. How do our makers bring this into practice? What do they strive for in the studio?
Julie Vernon says, “I am interested in exploring different ways of using materials, and in this work rather than use a flat whole tile, I hand cut each tile into thin strands and use the cut, uneven textured side. In the piece Natural Ochre Layers I also decided to dye the cement-based adhesive with natural pigments to achieve an earthy base colour to embed the materials. Exploration and creating something new in each piece is what I strive for.”
Momoka Gomi also sees the value of her source materials: “I want to challenge the traditional weaving skill by exploring new materials and creating a modern look for the textile.”. She concludes simply, “I strive.”
Myra Hutton looks at the potential for the final piece, wanting, “to create a quality handmade piece with feeling that captures the essence of a place; I want people to want to walk into my landscapes, want to touch and interact with the textures, to be transported to a place they love.”
Glass artist Verity Pulford has considered what she’s striving for in depth. “I have given a lot of thought to the question of what is important to me in my practice, in the last couple of years. My work has developed significantly in this time and I needed to re-evaluate my motivation. There were four main aims I had – to be authentic, produce quality work, to be experimental and for my work to be unique. This has allowed me to let go of many worries about how the work is received, and has enabled a more free-flowing creative process.”
This intense focus on making processes is what makes these exhibitors so special. Helen Slater Stokes’ studio processes are skilled and highly technical, but she never loses sight of her final goals. “I aim to create my own unique visual language that results in glass pieces which intrigue and engage the viewer. Within these works my intension is to optically fabricate virtual spaces that allude to current issues. These are concerns that can be interpreted on a personal or global scale. My practice reflects my love of glass, as an optical artistic material, and my interests in science, maths, and art. And within that I hope to create work that communicates and resonates with a diverse range of viewers.”
Making can be its own therapy, as multi-skilled craftswoman Janine Partington knows. “I find carving into leather a very expressive medium that can take me in unexpected directions. This medium has allowed me to address personal issues including loss, fear and the impact of the long term incapacitating illnesses of my parents. Through my work I hope to connect with people. I hope that the stories I tell and the images I create will have a resonance with a large cross-section of society encouraging discussion and understanding. My pieces in the Our Journey exhibition were my attempt to connect with and understand more about my mother who came from Ceylon in the 1960s. She swapped a very comfortable upper middle class life for a bedsit in a cold, grey Potteries town (Stoke-on-Trent) to study the ceramics that she loved. I wanted to explore where that journey took her. It turned out to be quite a negative journey, but one that also helped to shape me as into the person I am, for good and for bad. Understanding more of where I come from will hopefully help my own journey into that unknown future that we all walk towards.”
That sense of intense underlying narrative is also important to Michaela McMillan. “For each piece to mean something to me. I used to try and make it mean something to an invisible someone else, but that was too contrived and it didn’t work in my head. Now I find if the piece, or the narrative that I create around that piece, is honest and sincere then I can be confident in my work. I’ve never been comfortable in things being aesthetically pleasing if there is no connection emotionally with it, and so that’s the importance of the story telling and why my work starts with words on a page.”
These expansive definitions and understandings of how diversity impacts positively on craft practice can also be seen in the great array of craft heroes our exhibitors nominated.
Momoka Gomi was highly motivated by her time on the Crafts Council’s Hothouse programme three years ago. “It was inspirational to meet and spend time with all other makers, especially those with self-taught backgrounds. It gave me a great impression of the beginning of true diversity in craft and design. The creative industry can always welcome people from different backgrounds. It was eye-opening to hear how they found their passion and love towards their practice and how they taught themselves. It was unlike me going to art school to educate myself. It made me realise there are plenty of ways to learn new skills and become professional. Their other skills and backgrounds add many dimensions to their work, which is always inspiring.”
Michaela McMillan’s definition of craft heroes is a great addition to Momoka’s reflections. “Champions of diversity in craft and design are those who do the unexpected, and shock with their brilliance of being able to comment eloquently visually. There are some that stand out as being trail blazers, for me, pushing their practice and adding to the world, not just filling it.” She goes on to name five intriguing makers, the last of whom happen to be a fellow exhibitor in Our Journey (and a contributor this piece).
Michaela’s list is a great place to start for seeking further insights in diverse craft practice. (Each name is followed by Michaela’s notes.)
“Karina Thompson – technically brilliant, large scale, and pushes a narrative that makes you question the subject matter, so emotive.
“Freddie Robbins – just on the edge, always different, strong narrative, unexpected.
“Rebecca Stevenson – exquisitely detailed and over the top, beautiful and dark.
“Suzanna Scott – strong feminist themes portrayed in such a confrontational way; I would love to be this direct!
“Janine Partington – I love Janine’s new work, and it’s so different to her enamelling practice, yet it flows so obviously into her leather work. Stunning, different, thought provoking.”
Other makers who were selected for diversity in their practice include Myra’s exhibiting partner Nick Rawcliffe, a designer and maker with an engineer’s understanding of processes and form, and a robustly materials-led approach to a heterogeneous collection of furniture, lighting, homewares and accessories. Mention must also go to Ash & Plumb, wood turners with a very contemporary aesthetic, celebrating the natural heritage of native British woodlands though a growing variety of woods and forms in vessels.
Our Journey continues until 24 April at The Hub Sleaford.