RISING STARS: Suzanne Harbinson

Metalsmith and Craftsperson of the Year Suzanne Harbinson is making her mark. Click Play Video for online exhibition with commentary from the artist

Suzanne Harbinson is a metalsmith and jewellery maker from Rathfriland, County Down. In 2007 she won first prize in Comortas Ceirdre, a competition run by television company TG4, was crowned Craftsperson of the Year and received €10,000 in prize money.

When did you develop an interest in all things metal?
I had been interested in print and other mediums before college. I took a year out and went to Australia. When I came back I was totally fresh and I began a degree in fine and applied art at the University of Ulster. I went with the flow and really enjoyed my studies, especially working with metal - so I decided to pursue it. I ended up specialising in metalsmithing and jewellery for three years. It was an accident really, but a happy accident.

Is metal a difficult medium to master?
Not really. I make quite simple line pieces, but also more 3D pieces, which are a little harder. There are different techniques that you have to employ to form the metal into its finished shape. It can be tricky, but it’s worth it to see the final piece. I think it's amazing that a sheet of metal arrives on the worktable flat, and that you can shape it into whatever form you want. 

When did you get involved in the TG4 Craftsperson of the Year competition?
We had lots of interviews way back before the end of college. My degree show fell on a Friday and I was in Dublin that weekend to start the show on Monday. So straight after my degree I was into another hardcore kind of project. It was mad, but it was the best experience I could have hoped for.

What was the brief for the contestants?
The brief was the Irish fior, meaning pure and true. It was very broad. I get a lot of inspiration from stones, so I just went along with my own work. We got to spend as much money as we wanted on materials. I ended up spending about €2,000 on silver alone. I could never afford that normally. So it was great to be able to work on much bigger pieces than I would have done before.

What was the format of the show?
It was broken up into five different categories: metal and jewellery, textiles, furniture, ceramics and glass. We all had one brief, and we all had to interpret it in our own way. There were three judges, with two contestants from every discipline competing against each other. In the end, five finalists remained, and only one could win. It was a tough last round. It was between me and another contestant working in furniture. The judges spent ages making up their minds. It was quite emotional. 

And all captured on TV? How did you find the experience? 
It was wild. I was saying to people, 'No, I didn’t really cry!' But everyone could see that I did. I cried the house down. I couldn’t believe it. When I got the letter in the first place I just thought 'Oh my God, I really want to take part in this'. Right from the start people were asking where my competitiveness was. They were encouraging me to say that I wanted to win. But I thought it wasn’t about that then, I just wanted to make the piece work. By the end of the competition, because of all the work I had put in and because people had advised me to make the piece smaller and change this and that (which I refused to do) I wanted to prove everyone wrong. Then I won the show, so I’m glad I went with my own idea.

What have you done with the €10,000 prize money?
First of all I went on holiday. After that I bought loads of equipment, including a drill and other things. People were shocked that I didn’t want to go shopping, but I knew what I wanted. I still have some of the money left over. It’s being used for equipment and materials for my jewellery. I’m really strict with myself about it. I also received an award from Craft Northern Ireland, so now I’ve got my own little workshop. I don’t know if I would call myself a businesswoman, but I have everything I need to be successful. 

Has being part of a crafts organisation like County Down Crafts helped you to develop post-university?
The professional world is a lot different from the educational world, it sure is. I joined County Down Crafts when I was still in college, and now I show, and sell, my work through their SpaceCRAFT outlet and gallery in Belfast. I also have my own website, although it's not fully-functioning just yet. For me to open my own place and expect to sell a piece of jewellery every day, I just can’t imagine that. I think there would be more money going out than coming in. I’ve done a few business courses, but I think I’m quite scared of going it alone. I'm glad to be part of a wider crafts community.
Suzanne Harbinson's work can be viewed at the SpaceCRAFT website.

Get in contact with Suzanne, or check out her work, on her own website.