As shoppers are urged to buy local and support Northern Ireland’s talented craft-makers we speak to three designers
It has been a very strange couple of years with industry and society as a whole impacted by the fallout of the pandemic. And while the emphasis from the start was naturally to keep essential services running smoothly, as we got used to our new way of life, we began to crave some of the beautiful things which we may have taken for granted.
Creative work, in its many guises, has always been important to nurture our souls and afford us some respite from the humdrum of our working lives and those who produce the music, the art, the literature and the pieces which add beauty to the world, are often overlooked.
But the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has long been aware of their importance and together with various organisations such as Craft NI, does its utmost to promote and support the creative sector with campaigns such as the current Welcome Back! encouraging people to buy arts experiences/activities/gifts this month, using the high street voucher to do so.
Andrea Spencer (www.andreaspencerglass.com) and Scott Benefield (www.benefieldspencerglass.com) can attest to this support. The couple, who live on the Antrim coast, have been running their glass making business since 2010.
Each has their own independent line, but also collaborate under the name Benefield Spencer Glass and have each won awards for their work.
“We’re both showing under our own names in galleries, but I’m doing more production glassblowing and Andrea has been more involved in architectural commissions and community-based art projects,” explains Scott.
“Both of us also teach workshops at various craft schools and venues nationally and internationally and flameworking courses from our facilities here in Ballintoy.
“I was given the second Rosemary James Bursary from the Arts Council, which is a relatively new award in support of craftspeople in Northern Ireland.”
“Most recently, I received an award from Craft NI as winner of the Unlocked exhibition 2021,” adds Andrea, “but I’ve also been the recipient of a prize from the British Glass Biennale in 2012 and an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2017.”
Andrea says her work is inspired by the natural world around her, whereas Scott looks further afield for inspiration.
“I draw my inspiration from the landscapes and seascapes of our north Antrim coast,” she says. “My work tends to be naturalistic by and large, but often veers off into related areas of concern like human anatomy. I usually make sculptural objects, as opposed to decorative or functional objects.”
“For the last 30 years, my work in glass has explored the glassblowing techniques that were first developed in Venice around the year 1500 and evolved over several hundred years on the island of Murano,” adds Scott. “And I tend to make functional vessels, both in my gallery work and in the production line.”
Andrea studied glass at Edinburgh College of Art before locating to Northern Ireland in 1993, while Scott began his creative career in glassblowing studios in New Orleans and Seattle in the US before he met Andrea and moved to Ireland.
Although they often collaborate, they both have separate studies at home, where they each spend a lot of time melting, shaping, and forming their creations, some of which can take weeks to complete.
“There are pieces that I work on over the course of several days or months,” says Andrea. “One of the most challenging aspects of working with glass as delicate as the pieces I make, can be in physically transporting the work from the studio into the gallery in one piece.”
The artistic pair make pieces which range from under £30 right up to several thousand pounds, depending on the size and nature of the work. They both love what they do and say that the support they have received over the years has been hugely beneficial.
“The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has helped considerably over the past 17 years of my career by funding my first public art commission in 2005 and through numerous SIAP awards,” says Andrea.
“The most significant grant was an ACES award in 2017 and recently they purchased another of my pieces for their permanent collection which really helps to support artists like me.”
Scott agrees and says he has had great support in the form of project grants.
“These have helped me develop certain techniques, and I have also had travel grants, which have allowed me to do research and participate exhibition opportunities abroad,” he says. “In addition to this, The Rosemary James Bursary helped fund a residency at an arts centre in America where I made a new body of work over the course of six weeks.”
The couple are hosting an open studio day on December 11 where a selection of their work will be on sale, and they will also be doing demonstrations of their craft.
Jewellery maker, Jill Graham (www.jillgraham.co.uk) is another example of the creativity which is in abundance across Northern Ireland.
Living in Down, but originally from Tyrone, she started her own business in 2002 after graduating from university with a degree in silversmithing and jewellery making. Working mainly with precious metals, she also does stonework for one-off and customised pieces.
“My work is all silver and gold and I tend to mix the metals quite a bit to create more detail,” she says.
“My pieces are all based on organic structures and are inspired by nature and while I do make some jewellery for men, most of my work is for women and includes pendants, earrings, bracelets, and rings, which I sell on my own website, in the Craft NI gallery (which accepts high street vouchers) and into shops all over Ireland and the UK.
“I have always been very creative although when I first did a foundation (course) in Derry, I was veering more towards the textile end of things.
“But then when I started doing metal work, I found that I really liked it — and I made a phone call to the university and asked them if I could change my course. So I started onto the silversmithing course and then along with that I worked during the holidays as an apprentice for a jewellery maker in Derry while also doing my degree in England.”
Jill has a studio at home where she works for four and a half days each week. Being self-employed this also means long hours in the evening catching up on paperwork, getting orders ready to ship and keeping on top of social media promotion and correspondence. This is all essential work, but her heart is mostly at the work bench where she can let her creative juices flow.
“I have about 10 collections with between eight and 10 pieces in each and if I need to, I can make up to 50 pieces in a day,” she says. “The commissioned work takes a lot longer and something special can involve a week’s worth of work — the time spent on a piece really varies depending on what is involved.
“I mainly make a mix of silver and gold pieces, but since lockdown I have spent a lot of time making one off pieces with stones which I hadn’t had the chance to do before, so I’m really enjoying that at the moment.”
Jill has been involved with Craft NI since its inception and says their support over the years has been invaluable.
“I have been working with Craft NI, which is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, since they started and I have always been a part of their directive,” she says.
“I helped to set up what is now The Gallery, and this is a very important space which helps all of us makers to promote our work and get our names out there.
“I have also done exhibitions with Craft NI over the years along with both craft and trade fairs, so they have been a great support to me.
“And during the first lockdown, they were giving out emergency funds, so I applied and was successful — this money has been part of what I used to work on the one-off pieces.
“These, along with my other collections are for sale on my own website, through Craft NI and various other outlets, including the Kilkenny Shop across Ireland. It has been great to have the support, so that I and other makers, can continue to do the work we love.”
For information, see www.craftni.org and www.artscouncil-ni.org