Romilly Saumarez Smith is undoubtedly one of the most unique and interesting artists currently working today both within and beyond the United Kingdom. ArtMag was lucky enough to get to her new exhibition, Newfoundland, at the Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales. The exhibition, partly inspired by Saumarez Smith’s formative trip to Newfoundland, Canada, consists of jewellery work created from found objects, detectorist finds and odds-and-ends from internet sellers. These artefacts have been fully transformed from found objects and curiosities to wonderful, ethereal art giving them new ‘altered’ lives. Newfoundland is also a collaboration between Saumarez Smith and the photographer Verdi Yahooda. Together they have created something truly remarkable.
In Saumarez Smith’s home and studio, a recently restored 17th century house in London’s Spitalfields, the worn and aged floorboards have become a fantasy world in which treasure has been found. Saumarez Smith’s floor becomes a map, with locations being gradually added and finds being discovered and photographed “on-location”. Yahooda, who works exclusively in analogue formats, captures the essence of Saumarez Smith’s work perfectly. Saumarez Smith’s anagrammed captions add a further level of intrigue. Taking pictures of the materials before they are transformed into jewellery, Yahooda has produced a truly special book to accompany the exhibition. A few copies have been printed and hand-bound using vellum, while other copies have been printed in equally beautiful but less expensive formats, all available for sale at the gallery.
The pieces themselves have passed through a fascinating process before being displayed. Saumarez Smith describes the effect of the makeup of the ground in Newfoundland as being a factor, with a fine latticework of shrubs, berries and turf translating into complex and interwoven metal. Saumarez Smith notes that her positioning in relation to the ground gave her a new perspective from which to see the place. A serious degenerative disease has robbed of her fine motor skills and she now travels in an electric wheelchair. Saumarez Smith describes her wishes for the pieces to a small group of other skilled artists through a complex and discrete language used and understood by them all. It is their hands who create the objects to her precise instructions. In this way, the pieces are still hers. Each of the three are talented craftspeople in their own right with their own careers and their own distinct artistic voices. However, when making with Saumarez Smith, their style changes, creating the pieces as they exist in Saumarez Smith’s mind’s eye, with no trace of their own personal styles.
This unique working relationship contextualises an already exceptional exhibition. The opening of the exhibition was accompanied by an in-conversation with Saumarez Smith, Yahooda and Lucie Gledhill, one of Saumarez Smith’s artist collaborators, hosted by Dr Elizabeth Goring, an independent curator and long-time friend and collaborator of Ruthin Craft Centre. This intimate event offered real insight into the thinking behind the pieces, the book and the relationships of everyone involved. A poignant quote from an essay by Stella Tillyard was read out during the discussion. ‘Romilly does not touch the work with her hands, but she can see it feelingly. Loss of sensation is only exterior; in the mind the senses do not atrophy.’ Receiving incomparable information and descriptions of the creative process, there is certainly no better way to experience an exhibition than through the eyes of those who are responsible for its being.
Running until July 16, Ruthin is the final planned stop for the exhibition, making the Craft Centre the place to see this extraordinary collaboration of extraordinary artists. The Craft Centre itself is certainly one of the finest in the country and is currently accommodating four equally exciting shows. Opening on April 29, the show is definitely worth travelling for and the quality of the work, exhibition creation and venue is second to none. An unequivocal and wholehearted recommendation.