Craft Fest 2011 is set on a beautiful 18th century estate on the shores of Strangford Lough. The National Trust's Castle Ward mansion, outhouses and grounds are all devoted to celebrating crafts and craft-makers, housing exhibitions, demonstrations and workshops over the three-day event.
Now in its eighth year, Craft Fest is arranged by the County Down-based Craft & Design Collective, an organisation run by artist/designer/makers to further promote and encourage engagement in craft, applied arts and design.
Craft Fest is the collective’s flagship event during August Craft Month. It’s just one of a comprehensive programme of activities throughout the year in a cross border initiative between Craft NI and Crafts Council Ireland, marking 2011 as the 'Year of Craft'.
Enda Kenny, owner/operator of Áve Áves, is the first milliner to offer demonstrations at Craft Fest. Usually the creator of intricate, delicate headpieces detailed with pearls and lace, on the day Kenny demonstrates the creation of a more obviously theatrical piece for his observing audience, drawing on his background in theatre and props design.
Crafting can be solitary work, and conventions such as this allow artists to see how others work as well as a chance to get to know artists working in a similar profession. Kenny values the social aspect of the weekend.
‘It’s a great opportunity to meet people, and get to know other artists and craft workers and what they are doing,' he says. 'The craft scene in NI is so small, and it’s good to meet as many people as I can as I love to collaborate with people on a similar wavelength.’
This year the theme of August Craft Month is ‘Craft Chat’, and the artists taking part value the opportunity to share their ideas with each other and with the public. Kenny says, ‘it’s not like networking, which can be quite forced, but you get to chat to people and often meet them before you even see their work. The public too are always very interested in what I’m doing and stop to ask questions. It’s a very sociable opportunity.’
Demonstrations of craft techniques bring plenty of opportunity for engagement between craft-worker and customer. The stable yard at the back of the house is the focal point for practical displays, and allows each artist to demystify their often unusual techniques and specialisms.
Traditional rural crafts such as candle-making and basket-weaving are present, as well as glass bead-making, a potter’s wheel and a lathe for woodturning. Each artist continues to create whilst on site, happily pausing to answer questions or give details as to how their works take shape.
Inside the historic Castle Ward, selected pieces of craft, applied art and design are displayed alongside the unusual interiors of the house. Creative expression from a previous generation is in evidence, as the décor reflects the tastes of the original lord and lady of the house.
The couple divided the house in two in order that both may display their respective preferences for Classical and Gothic design, and this is reflected in both the architecture and the interiors.
Some of the couple’s choice furnishings could easily be mistaken for art installations themselves: two taxidermied squirrels engaged in a fist fight are resident in the morning room, while a stuffed Russian bear shot by Robert Kennedy is a disconcerting sight when you step into the porch at the side entrance to the house.
With ornaments like this to compete with, some of the modern exhibits are lost amongst the eccentricities of the house; others, like ceramicist Andrea McCullough-Alderdice’s water jug and bowl, look every bit at home alongside the fine decorations of the dining room.
Education and promoting skills and creativity is part of the Craft & Design Collective’s remit, and children and families have plenty of workshops to take part in, all of which are led by members of the collective themselves.
Young crafters can opt to learn kite-making, origami or jewellery-making in the Education Centre, and free drop-in craft activities for younger children continue throughout the weekend at The Barn, Castle Ward’s specially designed children’s space, located by the original farm steadings.
Artist-in-residence Jenny Haslett is situated outside of the main building in Tower House, an ancient tower by the old farmyard known as Old Castle Ward. Haslett has spent the weekend producing new work and found that her surroundings have subtly influenced her work.
She displays her reinterpretation of antique wallpaper prints through textiles in old wooden sewing boxes, and a miniature mangle that would not be out of place in Castle Ward’s authentic replica laundry room.
‘It’s lovely being based out here in this atmospheric old tower,’ says Haslett. ‘Old Castle Ward is usually closed throughout the year, so it’s great that people visiting are getting to see something they wouldn’t usually experience outside of Craft Fest.’
It’s striking that many of the artist/designer/makers present are in their early 20s, including a number of recent graduates such as Haslett. At Craft Fest there’s a strong indication that interest in more traditional art forms is not waning. Haslett’s work, for example, utilises embroidery, weaving and crochet, old art forms in themselves.
Situating contemporary craft works at a heritage site such as Castle Ward is a striking analogy for how craft is finding its place in the 21st century art world. There is always something new to be found amidst the old.
August Craft Month continues until August 31. Check out What's On for information on all featured events and workshops.