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Heritage Crafts – an inspired future

The annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association was held in London this week and I was one of the privileged guests for a day of fascinating insights into the world of heritage crafts and their future.

Coming from a family driven by artisanal making, I have long been interested in the future of traditional crafts and the risk of their disappearance. The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is the leading light in the battle for protecting, promoting and expanding knowledge of traditional craft skills in the UK. The HCA/Radcliffe “Red List” of Endangered Crafts was published in 2017 highlighting the need for safeguarding crafts such as bell founding and clock making in the UK. We have already lost the craft of Gold Beating and cricket ball making. Other crafts such as clay pipe making, parchment and Vellum making, fan making and metal thread making are listed as “critically Endangered”, meaning that there may only be one remaining practitioner or that there is no mechanism for these skills to be passed on to new generations of makers.

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The painstaking process of scraping a skin to make Vellum.

The HCA was instrumental in the House of Commons unanimous vote to retain the use of Vellum for the recording of Acts of Parliament. Devastatingly for the craft, three votes in the House of Lords (bastion of ancient traditions!) overturned the decision in the mistaken belief that archival paper would do the job equally well and more cost effectively. Ironically Wim Visscher, one of the last descendants of the only Vellum and Parchment making company in the UK, William Cowley, was awarded an MBE in the New Years Honours List this year in recognition of his commitment to the ancient craft. Wim has valiantly carried on his family business, founded in 1870 by his great-great grandfather. The business has six staff, all specialists in their field and invaluable to the craft’s continuation. Wim explained that despite recent dips in business they would continue to employ these craftspeople as to do otherwise would lead to the death of the craft. 75% of the skins offered at market are rejected for parchment and vellum making. Every tiny blemish will show in a finished piece of vellum and the lengthy process of liming, hair removal, tensioning, scraping, cleaning and drying leaves no room for imperfections in a highly valuable end product destined to last for over a thousand years!

“Crafts for the future” was the theme for invited speakers. Emma Bridgewater, gave a fascinating insight into the development and production process of her ceramics.

 

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Emma Bridgewater – “The future is better if we are reconciled to our past”

 

She was very clear that she does not regard herself as a craftsperson, but more a facilitator with an immense appreciation of the traditional skills of The Potteries and Stoke on Trent’s indigenous skilled workforce. Her initial concept of re-creating the lost craft of spongeware decoration inspired by collected shards of pottery, led Emma on a journey of discovery and experimentation.

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sponge decoration on Emma Bridgewater ceramics.

Although she has based her successful business in the heartland of traditional ceramics production, Emma found it difficult to engage local young people to take on apprenticeships. She says that there is still a sense of bitterness in families that were affected by the decline of the industry and production being transferred overseas. The success of the Emma Bridgewater brand is largely due to the intrinsic traditional craft of her products. She says “it is the ‘craftness’ and the ‘hand-madeness’ that people want to buy” and left us with her opinion that “being analogue in a digital world is tremendously appealing”.

 

One of the critically endangered crafts on the “Red List” is fan making. Jacob Moss curator at The fan Museum in Greenwich explained a little about the heritage and craft of fan making which dates back to the 16th century. The wardrobe inventory of Queen Elizabeth I at one point listed no fewer than 27 fans. Intricately decorated and carved sticks combined with painted or textile fan materials became an art form in the 17th and 18th centuries, but again production moved overseas and the artisan fan makers have gradually died out. In an effort to re-vitalise the craft, the Fan museum staged the Street fans extravaganza in 2017, working with street artists and renowned fan makers to create a series of artists fans.

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Pull of gravity  Fan by  Philippe Herard/ Sylvain Le Guen. from the Street Fans project

Workshops were held in Greenwich market for the public to try  their hand at creating their own fans. The museum used crowd funding to finance the project as an important educational outreach to highlight this very nearly lost craft. One of the few exponents of the craft is based in France, Sylvain le Guen creates incredible structures and worked closely with the fan museum on the Street Fan project to help the artists create their fans. Unfortunately my online search for a fan maker in the UK only came up with one site, that of John and Pippa Brooker , who have now retired, but thanks to a search on the HCA site I discovered that Caroline Allington at the Fan Museum, is teaching Victoria Adjoku the craft after she joined the museum especially to learn fan making.

The little known, Red-listed craft of Fore-Edge painting was explained by the UK’s only remaining artist in the field. The gasps of admiration and surprise in the auditorium were audible as many of us suddenly understood what Fore-Edge painting actually is. Martin Frost showed images of his work and explained how he paints along the finest edges of book pages in a manner that the image only becomes visible when the pages are carefully fanned open.

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Fore-edge painting by Martin Frost.

The outer edges of the pages are gilded so that when the book is closed the picture is invisible. It is like something out of a Dan Green novel; antique Bibles and historic books with hidden works of art only visible to those in the know. But it is not only antique books that are being treated to this art form. Collectors of limited edition books commission paintings to be added to their prized books, sometimes the images are related to the books contents, more often a stunning watercolour landscape, and occasionally a little titillating piece of erotica! Martin spoke eloquently about his art and is teaching the craft in an attempt to avoid it’s demise. and was awarded the HCA Maker of the Year Award.

 

One of the most ardent topics of conversation during the day was the concern about the lack of hands-on craft teaching in today’s education system. People explained that they have encountered sixteen year olds that want to take up an apprenticeship in a craft based industry, they have never before had the opportunity to use hand tools, or physically make things at school. This is putting the UK at a disadvantage in terms of innovation in craft and other areas. For example, the Royal College of Surgeons has expressed concern that because students do not have the opportunity to learn traditional craft techniques or how to handle tools, the manual dexterity of aspiring surgeons is of a much lower level than in the past and dedicated courses are needed in how to physically manipulate needles, thread and scalpels. The focus on academia and STEM subjects has, in the opinion of many craftspeople, caused potentially successful makers to be discouraged in the education system and therefore not been inspired to follow an artisanal career. Emma Bridgewater suggested that the link from art schools to industry should be supported by business mentorship, putting craftspeople in touch with schools and art colleges to explain how to effectively create a viable business. Paul Martin of BBC TV’s “Flog it!” also pointed out that although all too often the BBC programmes that he works with would like to involve children in hands-on experiences of crafts, they are unable to do so because of the prohibitive Health and safety restrictions involved. but he says “I do see a renaissance of 10 year olds wanting to have a go”.

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Paul Martin “My job is to get more of you onto TV”

The HCA Chair, calligrapher Patricia Lovett took this opportunity to announce that the organisation has set up a Parliamentary all-party group for Craft which is a fantastic piece of news.

 

I could probably write another six pieces from all the fantastic makers that were featured during the day, from the bespoke artisan saws of Skelton Saws  to the stunning rush weaving of HCA Award winner Felicity Irons of Rushmatters where in addition to creating natural rush products courses are also available to learn these traditional skills.

The Heritage Crafts association is run entirely by volunteers and exemplifies all that is best in the world of Heritage Crafts. Membership gives an on-line newsletter, listing for craftspeople on the Makers Directory and the vital knowledge that you are playing an important part in the protection of Craft Heritage. But for just £20 what more could you ask for!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hair looms exhibition

Photo by Robert Taylor for the hair looms project

The Saturday night crowd in Peckham’s trendy Blenheim Grove must have wondered what on earth was happening in the Me’lange hair salon. Usually full of people having their hair braided, nails done or feet pedicured, this Saturday instead saw the official opening of the ‘Hair looms’ exhibition of photographs celebrating the natural beauty of black hair.

 

Photo by Robert Taylor for the hair looms project

Hair looms exhibition. Photo by Robert Taylor 

Melissa Jo Smith, director of ‘Illuminated Arts’ generated the project in a response to the growing concerns about the misconceptions around black hair styling traditions, and perceived unfairness particularly within the education system where students of both sexes are often unfairly penalised for wearing traditional plaited or braided hairstyles or having large afro’s, whereas long or extreme European hairstyles are often disregarded.

Robert Taylor, whose work is held in major collections such as the National Portrait gallery and the V&A, has worked with local people within the salon to explore the forms and effects of natural black hair styling. The resulting images are forceful in their natural effervescence and character with an immediacy that belies the thoughtful approach he has taken to presenting real down-to-earth people. It is this down to earth aspect of the exhibition that I loved; Simple black and white images about hair, being shown in a vibrant and bustling hair salon. If you have ever visited Peckham High Street (which I thoroughly recommend) and it’s side streets you will know  that these salons are true social hubs for the local community. The mere fact that combing and plaiting black hair can take hours to achieve, necessitates a real connection with the people around you in the salon. None of that “would you like a coffee and a copy of Vogue to read whilst your hair is being cut?”  Here you find children, friends and family hanging out, gossiping and generally making themselves at home whiling away the hours of intricate styling. The heady fumes of nail polishes, steam treatments for hair and a myriad of styling products pervades the air as we take in the photography and note the pride of all concerned in this exhibition. Mr Taylor is being interviewed, comfy rococo sofas are drawn up for a panel discussion, a little girl has one half of her head a mass of downy curls whilst the hairdresser plaits it into a beautiful swirl around her head. As the photographs are interspersed between the salon’s mirrors and styling tools.

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Robert Taylor 

Saltfish fritters and sticky lemon cake were served with Carribean fruit cocktail punch, and we settled down to a discussion on the imprtance of the traditions of black hair, it’s cultural identity in the modern world and the political statements integral in the changing trends in Black hair styling over the decades. The debate was sparked by a video of archive footage of Britains first recognised black hairdresser Carmen England in the 1940’s. It was here that the attitude to ‘alien’ black hair became apparent as the narrator refers to ‘secret oils’ and hot combing required to achieve a stereotypical 1940’s hairdo! The Hair loom exhibition’s visitors were variously horrified, indignant and amused by this glimpse into hairderssing history. Debate ranged from the inevitable references to slavery traditions, today’s ‘Black lives matter’ campaign and the practicalities of nurturing a healthy head of afro hair. Overall the consensus accross the panel was that the overwhelming pressures on modern women to conform to stereotypical straight, Eurocentric and treated hair are too heavy to ignore for the majority of women.

The irony of assosciations with slavery and poverty were not lost on me during the discussions about hair extensions and wigs, with the current concerns over the ethics of real human hair extensions. “Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: “They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off.” Homa Khaleeli, The Guardian 201220161015_194006.jpg

Robert Taylor photograph

Hair looms exhibition. Photo Robert Taylor

“Historically hair was very important in Africa and was, in many tribes, a way to show one’s status, identity, religion, and ancestry. The importance of hair in determining one’s status became even more apparent during slavery in the United States as black women with a kinky hair texture had to work in the fields while those with a more Caucasian- like hair texture were house slaves (Robinson, 2011; Lester, 2000). However, despite their looser hair texture, house enslaved Africans still had to take a step further in order to be presentable as white masters had control over them and forced them to have an image as close to white as possible (Thompson, 2008).

Therefore, emulating white standards of beauty for body image and particularly for hair meant having more status, the possibility to pass as white, become free and even survival in some instances (Patton, 2006). The mixed children from slave masters had looser, straighter and softer hair considered “good hair”, which added to the pressure African Americans experienced to appear as white as they could (Tate, 2007). That helps understand how black people’s need to alter their natural hair came about and still persists in our times.

The Politics of Black Womens’ Hair. Vanessa King & Dieynaba Niabaly 2013

Minnesota State University, Mankato

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The event was finished of by a piece of traditional african dance by Marta de Sousa of the Nzinga dance company, based in Forest Hill.

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Nzinga Dance company

Politics aside, the striking images in this exhibition are worth a look, you shouldn’t expect an uninterrupted view as in a standard gallery setting, but enjoy the atmosphere and banter as you do!

Falling….

Our beautiful crop of sunflowers was decimated this year by a rogue squirrel that invaded the garden.  Despite the best efforts of our resident squirrel family to intimidate him, the intrepid invader returned systematically to decapitate our prize blooms. Feats of acrobatics, inventiveness and sheer audacity notwithstanding the little beast managed to destroy all the sunflowers one by one leaving a confetti of seed shells scattered at the base of the stems each day. Loathed to tear up the remains of the crop, we left the headless stems amongst the other plants and lo and behold, new little buds have sprouted!

Too late for a glorious summer show these mini blooms are intense in their autumn colour and herald the glorious slip into fall colours and crisp mornings.  I thought I would share the ‘fallen’ sunflowers’ triumph over squirrel adversity…

Coastal pleasures

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A little collection of images from a blissful day on the beach at Botany Bay in Thanet. Tall columns of carved chalk, rock pools and sand dunes envelope a quiet sandy beach scattered with miniature treasures. Minute fragments of seaweed, skeletal remains of seashells, vivid green splashes of seaweed fronds, microcosmic rock pools. All in all a mini adventure through the evidence of time passing, eroding and evolving on the British coast.

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