Cork County on the Rise: West Cork arts and crafts have huge potential but need to be supported

Cork County on the Rise: West Cork arts and crafts have huge potential but need to be supported
Alison Ospina strips bark from green wood at her studio in West Cork. Image: Geoff Greenham

Craftspeople began to discover the attractions of West Cork in the 1960s and began to establish roots there, writes Alison Ospina

Since the early 1960s, West Cork has developed a reputation for the production of high quality arts and crafts. The area has attracted creative minds from all over Ireland other parts of Europe and further afield, inspired by the stunning landscapes, spectral quality of light and ancient history of the area.

Craftspeople first began to arrive in West Cork in 1962, when German-born Christa Reichel bought a small house just outside of Ballydehob and started a business producing handmade pottery, for sale to locals and tourists alike.

Having established Gurteenakilla Pottery, Christa proceeded to invite friends, artists, students and craftspeople to come and work there, helping out in the pottery.

During the summer she could barely keep the shelves filled, as sales were so brisk.

Word quickly spread that West Cork was a beautiful, creative place to live. Property was cheap and at that stage, although contemporary crafts were growing in popularity in Europe’s urban centres, there was no such movement in West Cork.

The creative community continued to grow with young people arriving from Cork and Dublin as well as from the UK, Germany, France, Holland and Scandinavia.

Many of the new arrivals came with degrees and diplomas from art colleges back home, with the intention of setting up small studio businesses.

They introduced a variety of contemporary crafts as well as breathing new life into some of the more traditional techniques.

The community that developed was unique, in that it blended West Cork inspiration and tradition with new techniques and aesthetic influences from all over Europe.

From the earliest days, the movement was nurtured and supported by the local population, who instinctively seemed to appreciate and understand it, despite being quite different from anything seen there before.

During the early 1970s, artists and craftspeople began to organise and pool resources, looking for ways to promote and sell their products to a wider market. This led to the formation of The Cork Crafstmen’s Guild.

In 1973, The Guild opened a small, co-operatively run, shop in Paul Street, Cork City. The shop was stocked mainly with products made in West Cork, it was a hugely important outlet for many producers, as it linked the arts and crafts of rural West Cork to a larger urban market.

The shop, which ran successfully for over a decade, received no state support and unfortunately did not survive the economic recession of the 1980s.

New income streams

For decades, art collectors and visitors have been heading to West Cork in the summer months, not only to enjoy its peaceful atmosphere and stunning landscapes but to take the opportunity to visit artists’ studios, attend exhibitions and participate in arts-based activities such as courses and festivals.

Today, for a large number of skilled craftspeople, teaching has become their primary income stream. Many teach part-time in schools and colleges as well as running courses in their own studios.

The learning of craft skills has

undergone a renaissance in recent years and there is no shortage of enthusiastic students, of all ages, wanting to spend their free time learning to make things by hand.

These activities attract visitors to the region who also stay in hotels and B&Bs, eat in restaurants and buy in local shops, which benefits the wider community.

Tourism is seen increasingly as an essential income stream for West Cork and the time is ripe for recognising the value and potential of the arts and craft sector and putting in place the necessary structures to support the makers and promote their work.

However, West Cork continues to be promoted as a destination for artisan foods, restaurants, kayaking, golf and so on, with barely a mention of its arts and crafts.

Compare this with St Ives in Cornwall UK which is promoted as being famous for its internationally-acclaimed artists and galleries. Despite the fact that many visitors come to West Cork for the culture, arts festivals and exhibitions, arts and crafts are barely mentioned on tourism websites.

Cork County Council facilitated the development of Cork Craft and Design, the membership organisation responsible for August Craft Month, in 2010. This is funded by several agencies and is an umbrella organisation, promoting craft-based activities in the whole of Cork county and city in August each year. Cork County Arts Office annual grants also help to fund a variety of exhibitions and festivals.

In 2006 a feasibility study was commissioned by West Cork Craft and Design Guild for the development of premises in Skibbereen. More than 10 years later, the study’s findings still apply.

The plan was to develop a ‘crafted’ building which would house:

  • A gallery dedicated to craft exhibitions as well as a small permanent collection on display
  • Two classrooms, equipped for the teaching of pottery, woodwork, textiles
  • A small shop selling crafts of various price points, all locally produced
  • A café serving the best of West Cork’s craft food
  • Workshop spaces for start-up businesses
  • Supports for start-up and expanding businesses, including development of innovation, enterprise and design capabilities.

These premises would be used year-round for the teaching of arts and crafts.

Making things with your hands is becoming increasingly important to people who are living in a digital world, courses are popular, people are willing to travel to do a course with a master craftsperson, in a beautiful location.

They would also encourage people to spend their holidays in West Cork as a destination with arts-based activities.

The centre would:

  • Inspire appreciation, creativity and innovation through it’s exhibition and education programmes
  • Contribute to the ongoing development of West Cork craft and its critical success
  • Create opportunities for the public to engage with craft in a way that develops audiences and markets.

Young creative people are increasingly moving to West Cork, away from Cork City which is becoming too expensive to live in and lacks the supports and facilities which artists need.

A whole new community is growing in West Cork and needs to be nurtured and supported.

An app could also be designed to help visitors who have an interest in culture and the arts, to plan a journey from Kinsale to Mizen Head, stopping at open artists studios, galleries, exhibitions, arts trails using map references for places which are hard to find or off the beaten track.

For self-employed artists and craftspeople to prosper, they need to be supported and valued by the decision-makers and powers that be. Even though handmade craft has long been an important part of Irish history, contemporary craft has not been taken on board by state agencies as something essentially irish.

West Cork has established a reputation for originality and high quality in its arts and crafts over the last 50 years. This needs to be embraced and promoted with supports from State agencies at all levels.

Alison Ospina curates the annual craft show West Cork Creates in Skibbereen, West Cork and has written books such as West Cork Inspires and Greenwood Chairs

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