BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 113

Celebrating the Hand-made: Make

A gaggle of primary school children in plum-coloured sweaters and borrowed-from-home aprons are hovering around a display case in Ruthin Craft Centre’s (RCC) main gallery, clutching clip boards. The group leader, barely a head-height taller than her charges, is also in plum. It looks like a path, one of the children is saying. It looks like teeth, says another. It looks like an owl. But what makes it art? asks the leader. Silence. A small voice pipes up, because it’s done by hand.

Make is a feast of the hand-made – the work of its fifty makers in jewellery, textiles, furniture, wallpaper, ceramics, book-binding, glass and basketry spanning all three of RCC’s galleries. There are aluminium brooches, silk scarves, knitted cushions, woven tapestries, porcelain crucibles, goat-skin books, crystal vases, a grandmother clock and a copy of a seventeenth-century lute. The display of the artefacts is reverent and egalitarian, the domestic size and purpose of Angharad Thomas’ row of knitted gloves no less worthy than Michael Brennand-Wood’s huge, gallery-scale wall-piece, 'I Know You Know and Wish You’d Tell', 1993.

The flow of visitors is steady. They talk openly, often loudly, confident in what they know. Two women in matching padded jackets peer over their glasses at a wood engraving. Another woman in a steel-grey coat reaches out to trail her finger along a line of hanging scarves. A tall man strides in, an elderly lady with a stick in tow. Lunging across a table, he picks up a Walter Keeler handled-dish, turning it in his hands. Very clever glazing, he says to his companion, I don’t know how they’re doing it. Glazing genius.

Then another tall man in a fur-hooded parka lopes in; his mother, in a purple gabardine mac and rather jaunty tights, follows, pushing a wheeled-walker. He gestures to one of the glass cabinets and she trundles over to him. This is one of my clients, he says, he binds books. He’s an osteopath but he likes doing this as a hobby. Po-faced under a headscarf tied tight under her chin, his mother makes no comment.

Though elegantly succinct, the labels accompanying the pieces ooze with evocative, lusciously tactile adjectives that tell of the intimate relationship between maker and material. Such as the scorched oak of Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley’s love seats, gorgeous hefts of charcoal-black wood. Or the celadon glaze of Claudia Lis’ bowls, with their glorious lick of iron oxide.

The group leader is exhorting her clutch of children, who’ve gathered around a plinth bearing Claire Curneen’s 'Blue', 2014 [pictured], to respond. 'Blue', 2014, a porcelain figure of a man with a blue-glazed face and blue-stained hands, is nude. They hesitate. It looks a bit rude, says one. Her voice flat and vowels hard, the leader diverts the discourse towards surface texture. It looks like chewing gum, one says, where she’s put the clay on. Concentration is flagging and the children grow fidgety. Watch out, says the leader, or you’ll have it over. Break that, she says, and you’ll bankrupt us all.

The man in the parka is showing his mother a set of three wallpaper designs suspended from a roll down the wall. It’s wallpaper, he says. She snorts. Not sure I’d want a room with that, she says, the wheels of her walker squeaking as she lumbers off. You’d only do one wall, he replies.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful, pleaded William Morris in 1882. An admirable, if somewhat impractical, philosophy to which Make clearly aspires. And why not? It’s a celebration of craft, isn’t it? says the lady with the stick.

Lunchtime is being heralded by café sounds of clanking crockery and the dragging of chairs. OK, says the group leader, clapping her hands for quiet, let’s go back to the studio and make.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in mid Wales.

This exhibition shows at Ruthun Crafts Centre until 23 April.


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