Let’s Talk About Crafts

Birsay, OrkneyAll we could do was look on and giggle nervously as the Pentland Ferry drew in closer to Gill’s Bay, on what was a wild and windy lunchtime in September. The ferry had been delayed earlier due to the weather, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was still safe to travel across the Pentland Firth towards, what has always been an island I have longed to see, Orkney. The ferocity of the waves looked like they were toying with the ferry; I had to remind myself that it goes out every day, and probably in worse weather. As a confirmed central belt Scot who traversed the A9 to settle and work in Inverness four months ago, I had never truly appreciated the extremes, remoteness and beautiful isolation that make up the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. These are three elements which have attracted people, as tourists and migrants, over many years, and elements which have had a profound and unique influence on artists and makers for many more years. Which brings me to why I was sat on a ferry bound for Orkney, for the next four days the crafts development team at HI-Arts and fifty makers from across Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and the Highlands were to come together to discuss and share experiences on a topic close to their hearts; Crafts.

Crafts have long been an important contributor to the traditional and contemporary culture of Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands has provided a natural home for craft makers and artists, drawing inspiration from the beauty of the environment. Since early 2000 the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) has recognised the integral part craft plays, not only in the culture of Scotland and its economy, but in the lives of its inhabitants. Setting out in 2002 to ‘develop the infrastructure to enable a broad range of people throughout Scotland to experience and appreciate the best of contemporary work’. Through its own work Hi-Arts has endeavoured to engage a broad audience in the appreciation of crafts as well as providing support, business advice and professional development for crafts people across Scotland. Since 2008 HI-Arts craft development has been spearheaded by Pamela Conacher and since has coordinated a series of Makers’ Day’s designed to give those within the craft sector opportunities to meet other makers, share and learn from each other’s experiences, as well as provide advice on funding, marketing and business development.

The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, OrkneyPrevious Makers’ Days were designed to give crafts people a reason to spend a whole afternoon, or as we have lovingly dubbed it, a ‘craft-ernoon’, to talk about nothing other then crafts; their passion, their inspiration, their lives. The Orkney Makers’ Day was unique in that it allowed this forum to be extended beyond the craft-ernoon to a fully fledged three day operation. Over the course of the trip the maker’s who had travelled from places such as Lerwick, the Isle of Tiree, Plockton, Harris, Findhorn, and Papa Westray were invited to attend an informal reception at the impressive Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, to explore the Orkney Crafts Trail, travel the one and a half hours to Westray, dine in the fine Helgi’s eatery in Kirkwall, and then to top it all off come together to discuss crafts under the banner of the Makers’ Day. This not only gave makers the opportunity to unearth the true nature of crafts in Orkney, but it allowed them as individuals to connect with one another, establish new networks and most importantly come together as friends in an open, supportive and understanding environment at the culmination of the trip.

One of the biggest hurdles craft makers in the Highlands and Islands face is the sense of isolation they feel, not only geographically, but also within their chosen profession. In general there is a misconception of what crafts actually is and is often seen as a ‘hobby’ or not a ‘real’ job. Lizza Hume, who runs the successful Hume Sweet Hume with her sister Jenna on Westray, demonstrated this best with a story about a visitor to her shop, who believed that the reason there were so many makers in Orkney was because there were no real jobs available. But craft makers are artists, they are professional and they are incredibly gifted. HI-Arts through its Makers’ Day’s are designed to reinforce the reality of professional crafts, bringing makers together reaffirms in their minds the importance and professionalism of their chosen careers, it also allows makers the opportunity to develop business and marketing skills to reinforce the real image of crafts for their customers and wider society.

In the stories that were heard during the Makers’ Day I came to understand the effect this perception and reputation of crafts has had on its makers. Both incredibly successful, nationally and internationally recognised craft makers, Wendy Inkster of Burra Bears on Shetland, and Eoin Leonard of Belgarth Bodhrans on Orkney, spoke of their ‘accidental careers’. Leonard was particularly honest in admitting that initially creating, these now spectacular, ancient single-headed drums, had been a hobby, he and his wife Jane had no idea how much their product would come to be in demand. A perfect example of the power of word of mouth, Leonard has now worked full time since 1998 to produce drums, “the sensible day job went” and he now runs a hugely successful business. Inkster, or the ‘Bear Lady’, tells a similar story of making a keepsake bear for her sister in 1997 out of a recycled hand knitted Fair Isle woolly jumper. As more and more people asked for a bear, similar to her sisters, out of their own jumpers or those of fond relatives, Inkster soon found the confidence and the belief that she could do this for a living. Elements of these inspiring stories can be found within the stories of all craft makers.

The WoolshedCraft is a personal endeavour; ultimately each one of these makers is putting themselves and their work out there to be judged. I found this truly inspiring and encouraging. The passion, commitment and dedication to crafts as a sector demonstrates its sustainability for the future, but this is reliant upon the support of local councils and the national government. It was interesting and enlightening to hear from Clare Gee of Orkney Islands Council, Hazel Hughson of Sheltand Arts, and Elsie Mitchell of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar of the Western Islands, three arts development officers, talk of the level of support they were able to provide the sector. While crafts in Shetland receives a high level of support through projects geared towards the development of individual makers and craft groups, and works hard to promote the contemporary application of indigenous craft, the Western Isles shares one part-time arts development officer who’s commitment to and vision for crafts cannot be fully realised in the limited time available to them. These discrepancies of support from councils for arts may be disheartening, but to see the level and quality of work to come out of poorly supported areas is what must be taken away and remembered.

Aside from the beautiful setting provided by Orkney, the island also provided a context for how collaboration between crafts people can truly benefit the professionalism and ability to enable crafts to provide a living for its makers. The now established Orkney Craft Trail, based upon the various Whisky Trails dotted across Scotland, was established in the 1990s and is maintained by the Orkney Crafts Association (OCA). The Craft Trail was designed to provide support for professional crafts people by promoting their unique and beautiful products. The Craft Trail made up an important element of the Orkney Makers’ trip, and the fifty intrepid makers traversed the Orkney mainland and Westray, visiting and meeting with their peers. If there were ever to be a template for how crafts, as a respected, professional and sustainable artform, should be moulded, it would have to be taken directly from Orkney and its islands. For what emerged from the trail and the trip was that here in Orkney crafts is not just a profession, a job or an artform, this is a culture.

This idea that craft is culture is embedded in the way makers perceive what they do. This is not simply a job, it is a lifestyle. The trail exemplifies this, as you wonder between the makers workshops set against the backdrop of their homes and on some occasions farms, you get a real sense of how their craft is reflected in their lives. Dawn Cawthra-Hewitt, a Morayshire based textiles maker, described how important it is to be true to yourself as a crafts maker and equally so to have the support and advice of other makers to understand the value of what you are doing, to generate that sense of self-confidence needed to be successful, on your own terms. Whether this is opening a shop-front, being part of a craft trail or being at ease with life and making what you love more then anything else in the world. Like all art forms, being an artist, a maker, being creative, it is clear that ultimately this is not work, this is life.

Hi-Arts would like to thank the all the Makers who attended, the Orkney Craft Association and the Pier Arts Centre for the trip could not have been such a success without their help and support.