Crafting an artistic revolution across the north

August Craft Month kicks off this weekend, with 130 events – festivals, demonstrations, exhibitions and workshops – taking place across the north. Brian Campbell looks at what's on the menu and visits one Co Down gallery to see how Craft Month helps generate interest in art

Emma Whitehead at her Co Down studio with a work in progress Picture by Matt Bohill

A HUGE rise in craftmakers across Northern Ireland, a 'ceramics revolution' and an influx of artists from Britain and the Republic mean that August Craft Month should be bigger than ever this year.

Craft Month is promoted as “a celebration of contemporary craft in Northern Ireland” and features 130 events – festivals, demonstrations, exhibitions and workshops – taking place across the six counties.

It is organised by Craft Northern Ireland and supported by Arts Council NI and Invest NI and officially launches at the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown tonight at 7pm – coinciding with the opening of the `Ontogeny' exhibition by Sara Flynn.

Flynn divides her time between west Cork and Belfast and her story hints at a broader influx of talent that has seen Northern Ireland labelled a leading craft hub, with a host of 'designer-makers' moving in.

Flynn's fellow Cork native Angela O'Keefe, a jewellery maker, moved north to take up a place on Craft NI's ‘Making It' programme, while Sheffield textile artist Marion Coupe has been living on the north coast since 2003.

Marion is part of the No 4 Queen Street retail outlet in Coleraine, which is run by a collective of craftspeople and artisans, and she says the north is “full of tremendous talent”.

“The north coast in particular hast a huge community of artists and makers. There isn't the support in England that creative people get here,” she says.

Of course, the heart of the craft scene is made up of homegrown talent. Textile artist Emma Whitehead runs the Top Floor Art Gallery in Saintfield, Co Down, along with painter Stephen McClean. The majority of Stephen's popular paintings and prints capture scenes of Belfast City Hall, Harland & Wolff, the Mournes, the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast and the north coast.

Emma's art is made up of hand-sewn mixed media textiles and her inspiration comes from cartography, bugs, jewellery and butterflies. She is a self-taught artist and her eye-catching craft creations have seen her work exhibited everywhere from Downpatrick to Berlin.

“I started out doing portraits. I had a granny who crocheted; anybody who's into textiles usually has a granny who was into crafts. I've been doing it full-time for about five years now,” says Emma.

“It's a hard living to make and a lot of the people would do more than one thing. Some people sell their stuff through Facebook and make quite a good living from it. I suppose it's harder to make a living if you're a poet,” she laughs.

Top Floor Art does stock a range of collections from emerging Co Down poets, as well as a dazzling array of arts and crafts – be it wood, iron, stone, wool, jewellery, paintings, prints, glass, ceramics, lace or felt – from about 20 local designer-makers.

“We get contacted by so many people who are keen for us to show their stuff, but it all depends on the work,” she says. “Both myself and Stephen are self-taught. So it's not essential for people to have come through art college, although that's OK.

“We're happy to take people who are amateurs and who have a lot of enthusiasm for it. So based on the quality of work, we'll put it out there. We have a partnership with Lighthouse Yarns in Whitehead, so as well as being a gallery we have supplies for sale, to encourage people to make stuff. And we run a craft circle too.”

Emma says Craft Month is a huge help for everybody involved in creating arts and crafts.

“It really does have a huge impact. We've taken part in it for three years. I started out doing demos, then we ran six workshops with three facilitators and this year we have 14 events using eight facilitators. It's a huge programme for us.

“I wouldn't be putting on workshops in this way if it wasn't for August Craft Month. Craft NI does provide a lot of support and do things like business development seminars.

“So Craft Month is the main big `showcase' programme, but they do a lot of work behind the scenes all year round.”

Top Floor Art's Craft Month programme includes workshops in dry needle felting, spinning with a wheel, lace knitting, cross-stitch and crochet. One workshop is titled `Knitting as Therapy' and Emma says she has noticed a resurgence in younger people taking up knitting.

Craft Month has been hailed for bringing a diverse range of `crafters' together, creating a buzz in the scene and encouraging people to take up craft for the first time. Rebecca Mairs of Craft NI says there is something “very special” happening at the moment.

“There is a real flowering of creativity. Northern Ireland is becoming a magnet for makers who are seeking a place where they can nurture their talents," she says. “In particular there is something very exciting taking place within ceramics in Northern Ireland and this is reflected in many of the events in August Craft Month. You could call it a ceramics revolution.”

She points to a new collective of young contemporary female ceramicists/designer-makers called the Contemporary Applied Arts Collective – 17 graduates of the Contemporary Applied Arts Course at the Art College in Belfast.

One member, Sasha McVey, explains how the collective came together and why she loves ceramics. “After leaving university you're no longer surrounded by people to bounce ideas off. Creating the collective lets us stay in contact, gain feedback and to exhibit together.

“Everyday life now is full of technology and in doing ceramics you can escape from it all, to create something from hand start to finish from a lump of clay. To create something handmade, beautiful, functional or sculptural gives you a great sense of achievement."

:: For more information on Craft Month, visit


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