Lee Henry visits the art gallery with a difference

The traditional image of the 'crafts person' as 60s hippy is not something that appeals to Jan Irwin and the talented collective at Space CRAFT. As part-time co-ordinator of Belfast's newest and coolest arts and crafts outlet, Irwin knows that these days 'crafts people' are more likely to come with a business degree than a penchant for tie-dyed underwear. 

‘We used to be known as crafts people,’ Irwin explains. ‘But we wanted to steer people away from the idea that crafts are something associated with knitted toilet roll holders and the beard and sandal brigade, and so we coined the term 'artist/designer/makers' because the artists who are members of Craft & Design Collective are skilled in many areas. What we sell and exhibit at Space CRAFT are original pieces, made with a very high level of skill and artistry. We sell one-off pieces of art. We don’t sell kitsch.’

Space CRAFT isn’t just a pretty name. Inhabiting an substantial space on the first floor of the Fountain Centre complex, Space CRAFT is the new outlet for Craft & Design Collective, a congolmerate originally known as County Down Crafts when it was formed in 1997 by artist/designer/makers to help raise the profile of Irish artists.

Painted white from floor to ceiling and bathed in natural light, Space CRAFT houses the work of artists from all over Ireland, each of whom has voluntarily agreed to help run the shop in person for six days of the year.

There are a wide range of arts and crafts on show in Space CRAFT, from the Elfin willow wall hangings of Armagh’s Alison Fitzgerald to Anne Nicholls’ exquisite felt handbags. They may not be designed by Madonna or sell out quite as fast as her High Street clothes lines, but you can be sure that no-one else will be sporting the same Nicholls handbag or piece of Celine Traynor jewellery that you might purchase from the Space CRAFT shelves.

This is the appeal of outlets like Space CRAFT. Whilst they encourage ethical commerce - consumers know that they are helping to support local, independent arts scenes – they also offer the ever-discerning public the chance to purchase something truly unique, something that no two people might show up to a party in or pour a cup of tea from.  

Craft & Design Collective artist Karen Shannon argues the point for independent shops like Space CRAFT, where High Street homogeneity is anaethema.

‘We try to include artists from all over to take in as many styles and disciplines as we can. As artist/designer/makers, we can either put our commercial pieces into the shop area or show our one-off pieces in the gallery space. But everything here is for sale. We're giving customers a choice.’

The other half of Space CRAFT – that is, the space not taken up with shelves and surprisingly accommodating price tags – is a gallery space where different artists exhibit every month. June was the turn of first and second year textile students from the University of Ulster’s Art College to gain first-hand experience of the art of exhibition.

A cylindrical scultpure made from a variety of natural and man-made materials including silicon and leaves, Adele Kelly’s ‘environmental installation’ was impressive for it's shape-shifting qualities.

Somewhat abstract on first sight, after a flick through Kelly’s coursework – available to peruse in full on a table nearby – you realise that her work is concerned with the nature of ‘organic matter trapped in tactile positions’ and heavily influenced by the poetry of Seamus Heaney. You want to touch it, to learn more about its many materials and how they interact with one another, but that might cause the whole thing to crome crashing down.  

Heather Wilson, artist-in-residence with Space CRAFT, worked as a part-time tutor with the UU students during their 2006/07 semester.

'We thought that it would be great practise for first and second year students, who don’t usually get their work shown, to gain some experience of developing professional practice, to think about artist statements and pricing and other things that they may not learn in university. This particular exhibition is promoting Space CRAFT to the next generation of artists and crafts people and also promoting students’ work to the public, so it has worked very well.'

Formerly based in Downpatrick, Craft & Design Collective have since gone on to cement a cross-border partnership with Louth Craftmark, called Craftmark, and currently boast around 120 members. Their move to the Fountain Centre was funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

For anyone interested in finding out more about the artists featured in Space CRAFT, Craft & Design Collective also have an extensive information library on their website. Also look out for future exhibitions by glassware artist Karl Harron and the RDS National Touring Exhibition.