This article reflects upon the discussion between QEST maker scholars, Annemarie O’Sullivan, Alice Walton and Dorcas Casey, in conversation with the QEST’s chair, Nick Crean, about the makers drive behind the production of extraordinary contemporary craft. Established in 1990, QEST is a charitable Trust that seeks to invest, promote and support craft through its Scholarships and Apprenticeships.
To celebrate 30 years of supporting excellence in British craft, the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust/ QEST exhibited at COLLECT 2020, the International Art Fair for Modern Craft & Design held by the Crafts Council in London. It showcased the work of seven QEST Scholars in an exhibition titled ‘Tradition Redressed’.
The makers selected produced work specifically for the exhibition. They showcased their exciting interpretations of traditional crafts in contemporary ways, pushing boundaries and building on excellence. They are all committed to keeping their respective skills and crafts relevant, something which is at the very heart of the Trust’s guiding beliefs.
In addition, QEST took part in the COLLECT talk-series with three of its maker scholars: ceramicist Alice Walton, basket weaver Annemarie O’Sullivan, and mixed-media artist Dorcas Casey. In discussion with the trust’s chair, Nick Crean. The talk concentrated on the innovative use of materials, connections found through craft and the value of traditional skill sets.
To begin, Nick introduced each craft maker highlighting their unique aesthetic language:
Alice Walton builds sculptural objects, entirely from porcelain and stoneware, which are intriguing for their unexpected surface textures. Exploring enclosed, sculptural forms, rather than making functional vessels typical of ceramic making, her works also stand out for their use of colour. Alice mixes these with white, giving her work the effect of pastel coloured macarons.
Annemarie O’Sullivan provides a strong link to the past and the future. Each and every work she creates is rooted in the ancient craft of basket weaving. While the skill has been practiced for thousands of years, Annemarie’s work is very much contemporary, often using these skills to produce architectural forms on an unconventional scale.
Dorcas Casey uses a diversity of materials such as jesmonite, resin and fabric to create sculptures, often in the shape of animals inspired by her dreams, playing with the contrast between the real and the surreal. The objects reveal unsettling qualities, sometimes uncanny, though they are made of benign domestic materials and subjects, which provokes a conversation about what one associates.
There is a potent sense of playfulness in the working processes of all the three artists. You can witness it in Annemarie’s architectural and sculptural forms, which convey her physical play and love for rhythm, the humour of Dorcas’ pieces through cultural connotations of traditional crafts, such as hand-stitching, pointing at a duality between darning and taxidermy and in Alice’s pieces by, as she puts it “simply doing things you’re not meant to!”
The ‘Cockerel’, a textile sculpture by Dorcas which she exhibited at ‘Tradition Redressed’, is made from items that may easily have been simply discarded by others; red leather gloves are used to create the face, then lace, under an antique glass dome. The ingenuity with which Dorcas chooses (and uses) materials for each project is particularly well highlighted in this sculpture. Her open mind and inventiveness when choosing materials often reflect the idea of a marginal subject returning as a peculiar but powerful presence. It is both striking and unsettling.
Playfulness and experimentation naturally leads to an artist purposely ignoring long standing ‘norms’. There has been an overall curiosity and willingness to question an accepted way of doing things since childhood for all three scholars. Alice spoke of her time at university when the “First thing you learn in clay is ‘not to put plaster in the kiln!’. So I have been putting plaster in the kiln. And you do get really exciting results when you do things with materials you are not meant to do.” Breaking away from standards and restrictions through the use of different materials may not always ends up in success, but it is part of the artistic process and generates its own value through what is learnt when considering the end result.
When talking about the fear of failure, Dorcas was asked whether an outcome would sometimes frighten her? She instantly laughed and answered with a big “Yes, but that would be a success!”. How she judges a work to be successful is whether it produces surprising results, either in addition to or completely removed from her original intentions, when “a piece of work is unexpected, and you cannot necessarily put your finger on why.”
And when something previously unthought-of does transpire, it is almost like magic. A consequence triggered by a certain aspect or intrinsic quality to a material which is joyfully unexpected.
For Annemarie, the process of testing and discovery is a tool that leads her into an idea for a project or an object, she is about to make. Annemarie has to feel a “spontaneous love”, knowing that she found herself a connection, which then manifests itself in her mind and is imbued in her craftwork.
She has created for COLLECT a large, site-specific architectural woven sculpture, made of ash veneer. Usually working with willow, she had to get to know the ash, testing the material, seeing how it behaved and understanding its character and properties. “That kind of tends to be my process,” she says, spending time in preparation and awaiting a response from the material.
Great contemporary craft is often acknowledged when, like Annemarie, the maker allows the natural properties of the material they handle to shine through.
Alice works in similar ways with ceramics. With an idea in her head, she takes time to explore a material, tending to construct her work in a quiet orderly way because it can take a month or two to make it; from deciding on a colour palette to the shape and structure of the body.
When finally the object is fired in the kiln though, the work could come out very differently, with the clay intrinsically evolving in the fire. When opening the kiln there is always the element of excitement and surprise, but intriguingly, Alice also stated that “generally, I don’t like the object to start with.” She needs to allow time to find her connection to the piece again.
A dualism between the maker’s abilities and the material’s properties is what makes contemporary craft flourish. For a craft maker to achieve this level, skills are absolutely fundamental.
Learning the technical skills and understanding the material is fundamental for being creative and for pushing the boundaries further. “Knowing a technique inside and out is the preparation”, Dorcas explains. “It allows the creative mind to come through”. With the support of QEST, she is currently learning the skills of lost wax bronze casting under the tuition with a renowned sculptor. Spending time to learn the processes of making and understanding the materials is giving her the abilities to fuel those skills into her conceptual ideas. She is excited at now feeling able to turn her ideas into designs in bronze.
The key to craftsmanship, Annemarie stresses enthusiastically, is to “go into somebody else’s workshop where you are getting skills passed on from one person to another” and emphasizes that “you would not get that from a book, online tutorials or a class of 15 people”. In basket making, most of the skills have been passed on through centuries of observation and it is the connection with other craft makers that helps her thrive in her work. She endorses the ancient techniques, feeling that she is “dependent” on the knowledge and skills of all the other basket makers who came before her. “Basket making has been done for the last 10-12,000 years and nobody has invented better ways of making a basket. Baskets cannot be made by a machine.”
In crafts, there has always been an understanding of the importance in passing skills learnt from one generation to the next. Spending time together, making, observing, listening and exchanging ideas. Dorcas reflected: “I am currently learning from a sculpture and bronze caster and he is teaching me one-to-one the stages of the bronze casting process. But there are a lot of extra things you get through that learning process. As well as learning about bronze and great technical aspects of bronze casting, I am also learning about another sculptor’s life, all his experiences…It feels like a real privilege to be given that time (by QEST), to learn from somebody who has so much to teach and is keen to generously pass that knowledge on.”
The QEST scholars involved with this discussion have shown that the connection with other makers is paramount for developing own skills. It builds on traditions, but it also supports the craftsperson to find a unique aesthetic language to take the discipline forward and eventually lead to excellence in craftsmanship.
QEST is understandably proud to be able to support crafts makers and Nick closed the talk acknowledging to be humbled to be in a room full of craftspeople. “I love the fact that you all exchange ideas so much because all of you have a real sense of curiosity. And if anything brings tradition forward and keeps in continuum, it is for those reasons…As craft makers, you are a bunch of incredibly generous people. Generous with what you can physically do and generous with your knowledge”.
Thank you to Nick Crean for allowing me to record the conversation and to write this article.
Thank you also to Dorcas Casey, Annemarie O’Sullivan, Alice Walton, and QEST in supporting this article and for providing the images.
The cover image is the work of Annemarie O’Sullivan, Ash veneer, 2019. Photo provided by QEST.
Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust/ https://www.qest.org.uk/
Alice Walton/ https://www.alicewaltonceramics.co.uk/
Annemarie O’Sullivan/ http://www.annemarieosullivan.co.uk/
Dorcas Casey/ https://dorcascasey.com/
Words: Mareike Besch