Works in Progress at Craft NI

Six makers, including Alison Lowry and Michelle Stephens, show how their processes differ during August Craft Month

Arthur C Clarke never – but could have – said, 'Sufficiently advanced craft is indistinguishable from magic'. Certainly, when walking around an exhibition of woven steel and fused linen and glass, the question that springs to mind is, 'How did they do that?'

The (work in progress) exhibition at Craft NI, part of August Craft Month 2012, aims to give visitors at least some idea of the answer to that question. Six makers, all participants in the Making It Business Programme, will display the various stages of their processes, from concept to creation.

Michelle Stephens, one of the makers who will work in situ at Craft NI throughout August, discusses the concept behind the exhibition. 'It is to show viewers the idea behind the work and to break down people's conceptions of what craft is. It isn't just felted badges, it is high quality, beautifully made stuff.'

Fellow maker Alison Lowry notes that artist/designer/makers fall into a strange 'grey area' of public perception, as 'artists who combine an artistic idea with high technical competence'.

Both Stephens and Lowry fall into this category of highly technical artists. Lowry's interests lie in the history of the textile industry and the transition of textiles into glass. Her main piece for (work in progress) is a wall piece of 39 little dresses mounted on a board. 'It's a departure for me, since there is some colour,' she says. 'I'm usually very monotone.'

Stephens' work, meanwhile, 'is based around concepts of the textile process, and then I bring in contemporary technologist practice'. She uses an old form of tablet weaving and forged steel thread to create a mixed-media construction piece.

Both Stephens and Lowry are enthusiastic about the experience of being on the Making It programme. 'It's lovely to get your studio paid for for two years,' Lowry laughs. She adds more seriously that the support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Craft NI have given her vital breathing space. 'I can work out what I want to make, who is my audience, where do I want to be in five or ten years.'

The support offered by the Making It programme isn't just financial, though. Both makers agree that the practical business development side of things, particularly the one-on-one workshops with Dr Rachel Smart, has been an invaluable resource.

'Rachel, who runs that side of the programme, is really switched on,' Lowry explains. 'She really gives you confidence in going forwards.'

Smart helps the participants work out business plans and identify target markets for their work. She also gives out homework and the occasional scolding.

'She told me off about my prices,' Stephens admits. 'She said, “With what you do, Michelle, selling it for that amount is like slave labour”. It's that bit of guidance that really makes a difference. Most of us are just starting out, so it's great to have someone to talk to about prices and other things that you don't have experience in.'

With big plans for the future – Lowry is hoping to break into the 'glass art' scene in the States, while Stephens is doing research into carbon fibre for large scale sculptural work – the makers are delighted to part of August Craft Month.

'It is a great showcase,' Stephens concludes. 'It gets us out there to everyone, not just to “arty people”.'

(work in progress) is at Craft NI from August 2 - 31. Visit the Craft NI website to learn more about August Craft Month, and events happening in your area over the summer.