Celebrating 40 years of craft excellence

Supposedly, a cliche is only a cliche because its true – or so some would have you believe –but on occasion that statement would appear to be correct.

Picture an artist or a craftsman at work and you create a mental image of a lonely figure beavering away in a small studio, garrett or tiny shed/studio at the end of their garden, busily and passionately turning out objects of great beauty.

This may seem overly romantic but essentially this is a true picture of the lives of many working craftspeople - toiling away, often alone, in a small studio either in or attached to their home. They are frequently to be found in small villages spread across Suffolk and it can be an isolating occupation.

This was the reason 40 years ago that the Suffolk Craft Society was formed to provide a support organisation for professional craftspeople and to help provide a shop window for their work.

This weekend, the Suffolk Craft Society stages its annual summer showcase exhibition at the Peter Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh. This year, the exhibition will be mixing the very best in contemporary crafts will a little bit of nostalgia as they celebrate their 40th birthday. It’s an exhibition which combines youth and experience.

This year there will be more than 500 exhibits on display, which encompasses everything from hand woven scarves and felted hats to individually made cards, a huge range of contemporary prints, functional ceramics, unusual sculptural work, unique glassware, basketry, stylish jewellery, cushions and striking pieces of furniture.

It’s the breadth and the quality of the work that gives the Suffolk Craft Society its standing in the art world and which has allowed it to thrive in this computer-driven, mass-produced digital world.

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Vice-chairman Jonathan Keep said that it is the fact that all the work is hand-made by craftsmen is the one of the major selling points. No two objects are ever exactly the same. He said that there was something special, owning an object which had been worked on by hand by a master craftsmen.

He said that the society worked on two levels. It provided a shop window for its members which largely worked on their own in small cottage industries across Suffolk and provided the public with a quality bench mark. “If you are buying something from a member of the Suffolk Craft Society then you would expect the work to be of the very highest quality. You know that if a craftsperson is a member then they will be delivering work of a very high standard.”

He said that they currently had 144 full members and five associate members who are currently on probation so the committee can assess their work.

New members have to undergo a formal interview with three current members, one of which is drawn from the applicant’s particular discipline. After the interview, if they are accepted , then the successful applicant is given associate status for a year, so their work can be assessed, before they are granted full membership.

Jonathan says: “Quality is something we take very seriously because the reputation of the society rests on the quality of our members work.”

He added that the Society’s permanent display space in the Ipswich Town Hall galleries has raised the profile of the society but for many people the summer exhibition in Aldeburgh provides a valuable peek at what Suffolk’s crafts people are currently working on.

Laying out the exhibition is always a challenge, trying to squeeze in as much work as possible into the space, while at the same time making it appear attractive, light and airy. “Each year it’s a minor miracle that it all gets completed on time.”

He said one of the secrets of the society’s success was the fact that members were always willing to lend a hand and share expertise. Designers, carpenters, furniture makers and all manner of practical people dive into the gallery to erect display cases under the direction of the exhibition organiser.

The slick, professional organisation that now runs the Craft Society is somewhat at odds with the slightly ramshackle, ad-hoc nature of the society’s beginnings.

Jonathan is a ceramist who works from his studio in Knodishall, just outside Leiston, and has been a member for 25 years. “In 1970, two potters John Chipperfield and Robin Welch wrote to Commander John Jacob at the Festival Office in Aldeburgh with an idea of founding a regional centre for the arts and crafts to be based at Snape Maltings. The meeting went well and driving back from the resulting meeting in Ipswich, Robin Welch remarked, through the open car window “Well, Suffolk, looks like you’re getting a Craft Society”. The first meeting of the new Suffolk Craft Society was chaired by John Jacob in September 1970.”

Jonathan made the observation that it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Suffolk Craft Society and the Glastonbury music festival were both celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. “There was certainly something in the air with regard to the crafts/alternative lifestyle way of looking at the world.

“I think that the Craft Society came out of that feeling.” He said that it also gave artists and craftspeople a sense of belonging – as their way of working often led them to feel isolated. He said many craftspeople worked on their own, often in their own homes, in small communities across Suffolk and if they weren’t careful could go for days, if not weeks, without seeing another person.

The Suffolk Craft Society provided not only a shop window for their work but also a professional and social support network where they could discuss problems and seek solutions for practical issues.

“It was a way of sharing information. If someone was trying out a new technique for them and it hadn’t worked out how they had expected a quick word with others members could get a helpful response like: ‘Oh yes, that happened to me. Try this or try that..’ and the problem would be sorted.”

Although the initial years were guided by the three founding fathers, it was the arrival of retired architect and potter Reggie Hyne and his wife Heather that brought a new sense of urgency to the life of the society.

“They were both incredibly enthusiastic and were, for many years, the face of the society. Reggie saw the possibilities of a rather depressed Peter Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh. He drew up plans for redecorating and re-lighting the gallery, and even went as far as to close up one window which he felt was using up some good showing space.”

He said that Reggie and Heather’s enthusiasm encouraged other members and their families to volunteer their time and expertise to give the annual exhibition that professional gloss.

For many years the society also ran a Christmas exhibition in Bury St Edmunds but in 2006, they took over a permanent exhibition space within the Town Hall Galleries, Ipswich, which now serves as their shop window all year round.

John Brown, whose wife Sonia joined the Society in 1978, played a key role in the exhibition organisation in the early days of the society, says that the new space in the Ipswich gallery is a far cry from the first exhibitions at the Snape Maltings. “Our exhibitions then were in a loft over a barn at Snape Maltings. At closing time we had to cover the work with sheets to catch the fall of plaster, dust and other overnight droppings.”

Now, it is the very professionalism of the society which attracts both new members and the public. “Last year the summer exhibition in Aldeburgh, drew in more than 5,000 visitors over the 6 weeks.” Jonathan Keep said: “The Society hopefully provides something for young or up-coming craftspeople to aspire to. If you don’t get in first time, go away refine your craft and re-apply.

He said that the breadth of the items on offer meant that people visiting either the summer exhibition or the permanent gallery in Ipswich could find top quality items for a few pounds or in the case of large furniture or intricate jewellery, items which would set them back several thousand pounds. “We have something for every kind of pocket. The emphasis very much is on providing a platform for a vibrant and diverse selection of contemporary crafts, created by highly innovative designers.”

The society is always on the look-out for new blood as it keeps the society alive and fresh with new ideas and skills.

Danielle Wade, a textiles worker, joined the Suffolk Craft Society in 2009 through an initiative called Making It. Making It offers recent graduates the opportunity of support in bridging the gap between education and the outside world. The award offers successful applicants a two year period of membership to the Suffolk Craft Society. During this period participants will have access to the exhibition and the gallery which provides selling opportunities, a supportive network of fellow professional artists and promotion through the website.

Danielle Wade completed a National Diploma at Suffolk College then, with a thirst for textiles, completed a BA Design Crafts at Lowestoft College. Since graduating she has set up her own business ‘Pollys Textiles’ from a rented studio in The Gables Yard, Pulham Market, near Diss. She said she was pointed towards the society when her former lecturer Liz Clark sent her the application forms for Making It while she was doing her degree in Lowestoft. “Some friends of mine have been part of the society for several years and have talked about the exhibitions they’re taking part in but as I was still in training, I never joined until I was in business for myself. Friends had always commented about the Aldeburgh show and how they found it really beneficial in terms of sales and publicity.”

She said it was great that individuals artists and craftspeople could be inspired by one another’s work or choose to adapt different techniques to suit their own work.

Woodworker Dennis Hales has been a leading member for 14 years. His work is based on turned, coloured and gilded wood. He makes commemorative pieces and wall hangings and commercial work like presentation pieces for awards evenings.

He said that one of the major strengths of the society was that it brings to public attention the range and quality of work being produced in the county and offers people an alternative to mass-produced items bought elsewhere.

“I think people who come to the summer exhibition or the gallery in Ipswich are pleasantly surprised by the range and breadth of the work on offer. From a personal point of view, the fact that you are a member of a select society such as this gives you a standing in the profession and certainly helps applications for events and galleries. Also its great to work alongside and rub shoulders with people from other crafts and disciplines.”

For jeweller Sally Pikis, a move to the county prompted a change of career from architecture and shop designer to jewellery maker. “I joined the society because I was looking for like-minded souls. I applied and was accepted.”

She said that she elected to be exhibition designer eight years ago, putting her pervious career skills to good use. The society has always prided itself on having a professionally designed exhibition space which shows off all the work to its best advantage. “I have a degree in interior design and I used to do shops and airports then moved onto jewellery design, which is still design but on a completely different scale.” She says she now balances her jewellery work with interior design commissions.

“The benefits of belonging to society is that it provides wonderful support – lots of shared experience, knowledge, workshops, which I have found invaluable – particularly when there was no internet. Even now you can share ideas by internet but having personal contact with real people is very important.”

40 Years On, the Suffolk Craft Society Summer Show is on at Peter Pears Gallery from this weekend until August 30. Further information is available on www.suffolkcraftsociety.com

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