Making Changes

Craft exhibition explodes preconceptions at the Ormeau Baths Gallery

As you enter the exhibition, your eyes are immediately hit by three large canvases fixed to the back wall. They draw the viewer towards them, but I resist and first give some time to the pieces on show, encased in glass boxes with a blurb about the artist attached to the side. I am impressed with the layout and the atmosphere in the place, I feel relaxed - there is softness to these works.

Making Changes: Contemporary Craft in Northern Ireland represents three aspects of contemporary craft in NI, 'Method in the Making', 'Re-inventing Linen' and 'Contemporary Souvenir'. The exhibition intends to provide a perspective on how craft changes over time. In the Ormeau Baths Gallery the three sections are defined by large 3D titles on the walls. There is a lot of space in the gallery, giving the works the breathing space they deserve.

'Method in the Making' looks at the different areas of craft practice by commended designer/makers from NI. 'Re-inventing Linen' intends to explore new definitions of the onlooker’s ideas of the traditional Irish fabric through time. 'Contemporary Souvenir' sets out to challenge the viewer’s notions of what makes a souvenir.

Taking up the whole ground floor of the gallery, 'Method in the Making' displays the work of nine individuals.

Peter Meanley’s work is nearest to the entrance and like the other works on display, is enclosed in a glass box. It is out of reach and beyond touch, giving a sense that it is delicate and precious. Meanley is a ceramicist, creating fascinating works that mainly function as teapots. ‘For the past 25 years in the public eye I have been a saltglaze teapot maker,’ he says. ‘I make propositions which must contain and pour. They must be lift-able and have a right to exist.'

Karl Harron’s work is equally impressive. He is one of few glassmakers in NI. His work evokes a feeling of smoothness. ‘I am trying to communicate the feeling of being in a state that is full of both calm and awe,’ he explains. ‘I believe that objects have the power to inspire and to elevate.’ I feel that Harron’s intentions are fulfilled here.

Finally I get to the piece that caught my eye when I first stepped into the gallery, the three large canvases by Hazel Bruce, forming a triptych on the back wall. Up close they impress even more. I discover that they are made with pieces of fabric, laid side-by-side and overlapped. They look so soft and beautifully created that I have to resist the temptation to touch it.

Going into the second room on the ground floor, still within 'Method in the Making', the viewer's eyes are struck by a large piece by textile craft-maker Janet Ledsham. Like Bruce, Ledsham’s textiles interweave layers of materials, thread-by-thread and piece-by-piece. Ledsham's work has an experimental and emotional feeling, using actual plant material and natural fibres to create her pieces. Their apparent frailty means they must be enclosed behind glass, but this does not detract from their emotional impact.

'Re-inventing Linen' greets you as you go upstairs to the second floor. Exploring new definitions of the onlooker’s ideas of traditional Irish fabric through time, there are pieces that pay respect to poet Michael Longley and the linen workers invoked in the verses of his poem ‘The Linen Industry’.

This display is a celebration of the unique textile heritage of NI. There are large images made from linen stretched across the wall. Some of the works are informative and some are skilfully and soulfully finished – in particular ‘Spirit’ and ‘The Skirts of an Invisible Dancer’. In contrast to the 'Making in the Method', though, this section lacks the excitement and innovation felt in the other rooms of the exhibition.

'Contemporary Souvenir' is a sharp and exciting look at what makes a souvenir.Traditionally, NI souvenirs have been poor by international standards, but the works displayed in 'Contemporary Souvenir' give much food for thought and would be of particular interest to tourists or visitors.

Works include urban images printed on disposable plastic spoons, digitally printed knitted pattern on potatoes, ‘gift’ stones with images of Harland & Wolff, and various other elements inspired by the teabag and the shamrock. The room is bursting with energy and ideas and is a credit to the designer/makers involved. You get a sense of celebration – those concerned have redefined what it is to be Northern Irish. I am both proud and impressed.

Making Changes showcases Northern Ireland’s strength in traditional materials, from linen to glass, jewellery to ceramics. These are contrasted with groundbreaking and original designs that aim to confront and inform the perceptions of craft as an art form. The exhibition also explores the relationship of handmade objects to mass production and the issue of identity.

There is so much in this exhibition that it would be advisable to have the provided reading material with you at all times. The eyes are stimulated, drawn to look deeper. The hand longs to touch. Numerous ideas stimulate the mind. We are clearly looking at a talented body of craft-workers/designers. Be prepared to be impressed and take your time to explore.