Making It in the Mournes
Newcastle ceramicist Rebecca Killen on finding commercial success for her signature crafts and showing South Down sightseers how it's done
Spring and summertime in the Mournes. It’s a tantalising prospect, awakening visions of green fields, lush blossom, glorious mountain scenery, all in an area where rural traditions remain an integral part of everyday life.
Nestled into sloping meadowlands, with Slieve Donard and the dense woodlands of Tollymore Forest Park rearing up behind, Tory Bush Cottages are a popular haven with visitors seeking refuge from stress, routine, hustle and bustle.
Over the next few months, proprietor David Maginn will be showcasing South Down's rich artisan history with three creative weekends, comprising accommodation, home cooked food, great views and expert tuition in ceramics, willow weaving and print making. In charge of the three ceramics courses is 29 year-old Newcastle born Rebecca Killen.
Killen is one of a new generation of exciting young Northern Ireland craftworkers who are establishing themselves and their work in the UK and further afield. A graduate in fine and applied art from the University of Ulster, she is achieving international recognition for her attractive range of bone china milk bottles, dishes and vessels, all featuring her trademark white and cobalt blue colour palette.
It is one thing for a young artist to aspire to setting up his or her own business and getting the work into commercial outlets, but it is quite another to do it. Killen has been exceptionally strategic and focused in pursuing her goal and achieving the skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. She is the first to admit that having an artistic talent is just the start.
'During university, I took a year out and did a business-related course at Monmouth College in Illinois,' she says. 'I learned a lot of new skills, like advertising, marketing, international economics. I came back home to finish my degree and, after graduating in 2011, I did an additional course at the art college, developing my work with the support of a studio space. It was a bit like an artist-in-residence programme.
'I always knew that I wanted to continue the making process. I was determined to earn a living out of my ceramics and I was aware that I would have to invest a lot of time and energy to make that happen. When I finished my course, I worked as an art technician at Down High School in Downpatrick, which was my first experience of working with children and taking workshops. I enjoyed it very much and it led to my working with clay in different ways.'
Killen was one of eight craftworkers, all female, who were accepted onto Craft NI’s Making It 2013/2015 programme. Her host organisation was the Southern Regional College in Newry, where she was given her own studio, together with professional mentoring in the practicalities of business start-up.
'It was great to get to know the others in the group,' she recalls. 'They were working in ceramics, jewellery design, screen printing, glass and textile design. We were all in the same position and were able to share our problems and issues, as well as doing some projects together.'
The relationship with the college has continued and Killen now teaches there on a part-time basis, while expanding her range and pitching to new outlets. She is in the middle of a hectic period in her life, making plans for her wedding and searching for a studio space in the part of world to which she feels so connected.
'Yes, I have a lot going on at the moment,' she laughs. 'I was recently invited to exhibit at the British Craft Trade Fair in Harrogate, along with seven other makers from Northern Ireland as part of Craft NI's Export Development Programme. It was a great show for my business, securing orders with new stockists across the UK. I now have five outlets in the north of Ireland and one in a new shop in Kildare Village. Plus I have a dozen or so in England and Wales - and one in Japan.
'The Tory Bush Cottages weekends will be a new challenge for me. Participants will be able to experience the complete process from beginning to end and will make the same things as me. At the end of the weekend, everyone will take away their own bespoke bottle that they will have made and decorated - just the same as mine.
'The cottages are right in the middle of the Mournes. It’s a magical place, a really creative environment, where people will be able to switch off and try something new. If I could find a studio around there, I’d be very happy.'
The country traditions of her home patch provided the backdrop to Killen’s earliest exhibited work. For her final year show at the art college, she produced a series of plates based on Downshire Pottery, the oldest pottery in Northern Ireland, which was set up in the 1700s.
They, in turn, prompted her to develop the more commercial range, which is now proving so successful. It is inspired by the nostalgic blue and white china she grew up with at home, as well as by her own love of all things retro.
'I collect old bottles and vintage things,' she explains. 'I remember when we used to get glass milk bottles delivered to the doorstep and those little bottles of milk at school. Their shapes look really great in bone china, especially with different surface patterns that are modern and abstract. The blue and white adds to the sense of nostalgia and reminds me of the past, of growing up in this special place.'
Tory Bush Cottages Creative Weekends will take place on 13 to 15 May; 24 to 26 June; 2 to 4 September. Places are limited. For more information on how to book visit www.torybush.com. To see more of Rebecca's work go to www.rebeccakillenceramics.com.