Once there was a time when painters painted, sculptors sculpted and ceramicists made pots. Not so today, when in any art school textiles might be found in the sculpture department, painters might be making installations and ceramics can pop up anywhere.
Of course, interesting artists have always disregarded categories. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was architect, designer and painter. In 1913 Bloomsbury Group painter Roger Fry founded his Omega Workshops in London, where artists designed textiles, furniture and clothing.
Now, practices are becoming even more fluid. It is common to find artists who have become masters of rigorous craft techniques and makers who develop their work through concept-driven research. Arguably, the work in both fields is richer as a result.
This month ten Scottish makers are taking part in Craft Scotland’s showcase at Collect 2023, the UK’s most prestigious craft and design fair. Attracting collectors, curators and galleries from around the world, Collect is an opportunity for makers to think outside the box and produce unique, collectable pieces rather than practical, domestic objects.
Craft Scotland director Irene Kernan says: “It’s a fluid sector. We are seeing artists and makers focussing on techniques and processes, and at the same time there is the intellectual underpinning you have in visual art. People are making works expressing emotions and ideas within the rigour of these craft practices. Scotland punches above its weight in terms of craft. The breadth of talent in the sector and the diversity of practice is really exciting.”
Five of the makers chosen to represent Scotland at Collect 2023 discuss how they negotiate the boundary between art and craft.
Ruth Elizabeth Jones makes large, hand-built statement pieces which are coil-built and smoke-fired.
She says: “I tend to describe myself as a ceramic artist, but maker or potter will do. When I returned to making in 2017 after taking a five-year break following the birth of my second child, I started hand-building. It’s a slower process than throwing on the wheel and has allowed me to develop my forms and textures and increase the scale of my work. I’ve enjoyed coming away from the constraints of function and exploring larger forms. I feel like I work in a more sculptural way, dealing simultaneously with inner volume, surface and outer form.”
“Perhaps one distinction between sculpture and craft could be that sculpture aims to convey a thought or a feeling. I’ve been practising yoga since 1999 and aim to convey a sense of serenity and tranquility in the work. When I’m completely immersed in making a vessel, I go into the same zone as when I’m practising yoga. I often chant ancient Sanskrit mantras while I work, and my intention is that some of the quietness I experience is retained in the fired pieces.
“I describe myself as a ceramic artist.”
Jeweller and enameller Elizabeth Jane Campbell makes work inspired by visual literacy (how we interpret and understand the visual world around us) and colour theory.
She explains: “Shapes and colours have associations and meanings for us all, often subconscious. In my work I explore shape, colour and balance to describe certain ideas or to demonstrate a visual concept, such as a Bauhaus ideology or the meaning of a colour.”
“I’m obsessed by colour. The traditional process of enamelling is crucial to my work and allows me to create amazing colours. For Collect I’ve focused on the secondary colours purple, orange and green, researching their histories and making a piece in response to each one. I also wanted to challenge myself to create a larger work, expanding my scale to enamelled silversmithing for the first time in almost ten years.”
“I consider myself as a creative. I think all artists have the creativity of makers, and all makers have the vision of artists. The distinction between art and design is for the viewer to decide.
“All artists have the creativity of makers, and all makers have the vision of artists.”
Iseabal Hendry makes woven leatherwork informed by the traditional crafts she observed growing up in the Highlands. She says: “Local traditions like basketry, roof-thatching and boat-building feel like integral parts of me and are deep-rooted inspirations to the work I make.”
“I consider myself a maker primarily and a designer second. For me, the making process is as important as the creative vision. The designs develop and transform during my making process. Before making my work for Collect, I went back to the boat-building workshop where I had studied for a year, steam-bending oak before sewing my woven leather around it to create sculptural baskets.”
“I love when something is both useful and beautiful. However, in making the work for Collect, I’ve really opened up to unexpected forms and final uses. I think functionality is a bonus, and one I like to consider throughout the process, but sometimes it’s nice to be creative without limits.
“I love when something is both useful and beautiful.”
Kate Owens creates large scale textile wall hangings, choreographing the patterns with the movements of her own body. Her first degree was in painting, before studying sculpture at London’s Royal College of Art. She has worked exclusively in block-printing for the last seven years.
She explains: “Because I wasn’t taught the techniques I use, I have found my own ways of working with the materials. I work by attaching the printing blocks to my feet and walking over the fabric. I have scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and had surgery when I was 19 to fix the central section of my spine with metalwork. I embrace movement in the work to compensate for the lack of movement in certain areas of my body. The choreography of my feet dictates the image, and sometimes the image causes me to move my body in a particular way.
“It doesn’t really matter to me if I’m seen in a visual art or a sculpture context, or a craft or a dance context. I think you find craft in art and art in craft, it’s not a question I have to answer within my practice.
“You find craft in art and art in craft.”
Charlott Rodgers works in glass and ceramics, breaking the traditional rules of these disciplines and embracing imperfections.
She says: “I consider myself both an artist and a maker. I am an artist who works conceptually, but I am also a traditionally trained maker. My grounding as a skilled craftmaker allows me to break rules and explore unorthodox making methods.”
“I explore subversive and dissident making practices in glass and ceramics. I wilfully disrupt rules and processes by, for example, adding conflicting materials into the glass or ceramics or by turning ordinary kitchen utensils into glass-blowing tools.
“In the foam glass work I am exhibiting at Collect, I combined glass and ceramics in a hot state, although the materials contract differently during the cool cycle of the casting. Traditional making prescribes what needs to be done at each stage. I am choosing to embrace and celebrate the random imperfections.
“I consider myself both an artist and a maker.”