Why Doing Things By Hand is Better

As August Craft Month kicks off, four talented creatives discuss how the slow art of making still appeals in a fast-moving material world

August Craft Month is upon us once again and 2017’s programme is so packed with events, exhibitions, classes and workshops that it has its own dedicated online platform for the first time.

It’s Craft NI’s 11th annual showcase of local designer-makers, and a quick glance at the brand-new website reveals that contemporary craft in Northern Ireland is positively thriving.

Over 200 events and activities are taking place, including basket weaving, ceramics, furniture-making, glass sculpture, woodturning, silk-painting…if there’s something you want to have a go at making, it’ll be happening somewhere in Northern Ireland this August.

Heather McGarrigle spoke to four of the talented creators participating in this year’s programme, to explore why, in this automated, digital age, we’re still so captured by the slow art of making things by hand.

Emma whitehead

Map Butterfly - Emma Whitehead

Emma Whitehead is a textile artist and co-owner of the Top Floor Art gallery in Saintfield, County Down.

For Emma, the materials she uses play a key role in her creative process – she is inspired by whose hands they’ve been in and the various functions they’ve served. In a world of fast fashion and consumerism, she aspires to breathe new life into old things by transforming them into art.

‘My work is all about storytelling – especially in my commission pieces,’ she says. ‘The journey of the materials is very important to me so I use a lot of recycled materials, and often people will come to me with something of significance to them to be incorporated into a piece. Sometimes a beloved piece of jewellery will be beyond repair or too expensive to mend, so they have it made into a piece of art so they can continue to enjoy it.

‘Crafting as a practice is valuable in and of itself. We have a craft circle that meets at the gallery twice a month and I learn from others as much as they learn from me. People like being able to do things with their hands and it has benefits beyond the actual making – the human interaction, communicating, learning from each other. With craft, there are so many possibilities and so many different ways of doing things that learning never stops – it’s endless.’

The Layers and Reflections exhibitions run from August 3, along with a variety of free and ticketed workshops, with Fabric Mountain Week set to be a highlight. For more details, visit www.topfloorart.co.uk.

Big Sock

NI Big Sock - Pamela Emerson

Pamela Emerson is an art historian known as The Crafty Historian, who is the brains behind the NI Big Sock – the project for which she won the Heritage Craft Association/Marsh Heritage Trust Volunteer of The Year Award in May of this year.

Launched in 2016, the NI Big Sock is a Northern Ireland-wide community crafting project which everyone is invited to take part in. Participants make small fabric hexagons which are being sewn together to create the world’s largest patchwork sock. To beat the current Guinness World Record holder, it needs to be 52 meters by 21 meters – roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool!

As well as promoting sustainability – the NI Big Sock uses only upcycled and recycled materials – Emerson is a passionate advocate of the practice of handcrafts, particularly hand-sewing.

‘Sewing is not taught in schools, and I think it’s an important skill to learn,’ she says.

‘There are mindfulness and health benefits to the simple act of sewing involved in the NI Big Sock. With knitting and crochet there’s a lot of counting and concentration required, but when you’re putting a few stitches in a hexagon, you can just let your mind go free.

‘For children it can help their fine motor skills and matching colours and patterns. It’s also very social and community orientated – people are coming together, showing their friends and other people how to sew – lots of little groups have started up where they invite people round for coffee to sew together.

‘There’s also a social benefit for older people, who can already sew but perhaps have no outlet for it - this gives them something to do where they are part of the wider community group and can even teach others.

Emerson adds: ‘We also have people who don’t sew but enjoy the geometry and precision of drawing and cutting out the fabric and paper hexagons – so it allows a whole range of people to enjoy the satisfaction of being part of making something.’

The NI Big Sock is exhibiting at Saintfield Library, County Down throughout Craft Month. Visit www.facebook.com/nibigsock to find out more.

Sugar glass

'Summer Skies’, 2016, Pate de verre - Alison Lowry

Alison Lowry is a glass artist based in Saintfield, living and working from her Schoolhouse Glass studio. It’s a former schoolhouse where she now takes classes and workshops, as well as creating her own work for sale and exhibition.

Lowry has a fine art and textiles background, but only returned to full time formal study after having her son. It was during her final year studying art that she discovered a fascination for glass as a medium.

‘It’s an everyday substance – we use it every day – but in some situations, it can be extraordinary. We’re always being told ‘watch the glass!’ and emphasising its fragility, but yet we use it structurally in our doors and windows. It can be liquid or solid. So, it has all these weird contradictions that I’ve always found fascinating.

‘The technique I use a lot is pate de verre which is French for ‘glass paste’, so I use crushed glass as my raw material – it looks almost like sugar. I mix it with a sort of glue to form a type of paste and fire it in the kiln, so often it doesn’t look particularly ‘glassy’. There’s a real opacity and texture you can get in glass that I like.

Artist-in-Residence: Alison Lowry

Lowry continues: ‘To earn a living in the craft industry you have to wear a lot of hats, so one of my hats is teaching. I’m lucky enough to have my own space to hold classes and workshops, but I am passionate about passing on the knowledge of working with glass, so I have travelled around the UK and Europe teaching and demonstrating.

‘I think we all need to be connected to our creativity. A lot of us leave school thinking, ‘if you can’t draw, you’re not creative’ and it’s nonsense; everyone is creative. I believe making something with your hands brings you back to the essence of what it is to be human – to create and make sense of the material world.’

Lowry’s exhibition (A) Dress opens at Millennium Court Arts Centre on August 4, running until September 27, with an artist talk on August 12. She is also participating in other events and workshops – visit www.augustcraftmonth.com or www.alisonlowry.co.uk for more.

Tiki Mug

Kookie tiki mug - Andrew Cooke

Andrew Cooke is a ceramic artist who specialises in folk art and ‘unusual instruments’. From handmade diddly bows to quirky tiki mugs, Cooke’s work is unmistakable. He is heavily inspired by the Kustom Kulture that first sparked his love of car body work, and now has a fully-working 1950 Chevy on the road, which can often be seen with him at fairs and festivals!

Having worked in vehicle restoration and maintenance all his life, his career was cut short by arthritis around the age of 40. Although devastated by the turn of events, Andrew taught himself the art of vehicle airbrushing to keep mind and body active. Then he saw a TV programme which helped change the course of his life.

‘I wanted to learn more drawing skills,’ he explains. ‘I happened to see a TV programme about the local artist Graham Catney - and he was talking about how he had been to Bangor Tech to learn art skills after his wife passed away. That was the push I needed to get me to go down to the college. I went to a night class, which led to a foundation year - and all of a sudden, I was doing a degree!

Andrew Cooke Ceramics - The Diddley Bow Documentary

‘There’s a lot of guys out there with real skills – maybe they’ve been laid off from shipyards or manufacturing – but they’ve never used them for anything creative. Going to university taught me how to think and apply those skills – so maybe we need that message to get out there to get more men involved.

‘There’s such a stigma about the word ‘craft’ – there’s guys out there working with leather, doing airbrushing and they don’t see that as craft. Anything you make with your hands and has an outcome is craft. Bricklaying is a craft! It’s something you have to learn and get good at. Maybe it’s just about visibility – men need to see other men doing these things. Hopefully the ManCraft exhibition during Craft Month will help.’

Andrew is participating in ManCraft at Synergy Studios Newcastle, and is also hosting Diddlybow Mayhem workshops at his own Redline Studios. Visit http://andrewcookeceramics.weebly.com to read more about Andrew and his work.

To browse the full programme of events happening across Northern Ireland as part of August Craft Month, go to www.augustcraftmonth.com.