Q&A: Mary Palmer
August 4 to September 5 is the 2015 Cork Arts and Design month.
Now in its sixth year, it has become a haven for celebrating creativity.
And there’s no better year for celebrating the vast amount of creative talent in Cork than this, the Year of Irish Design.
The month-long event will feature exhibitions, curated gallery events, workshops, demos, and pop-up shops, offering a unique opportunity to get an exclusive look inside craftmakers’ studios, for those fortunate enough to attend open events.
A diverse range of craft and design will be available to view and purchase, from ethically-sourced furniture to textiles, jewellery, ceramics, metalwork, glass and wood.
But there was a time when what we now refer to as “crafts” wasn’t looked upon with any favour.
Then, craftworkers generally meant ill-educated peasants who laboured with their hands and whose work was not held in high regard.
The Arts and Crafts movement began, initially, as a reaction against the perceived impoverishment of the decorative arts and the increasingly mechanised manner in which they were made.
This international movement flourished between 1880 and 1910, and it stood firmly for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and frequently borrowing medieval, romantic and folk styles of decoration.
But the movement proved to be much more than a renewed appreciation of the arts. It advocated economic and social reforms and was often accused of being anti-industrial.
Its influence was felt all over Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, although its effects continued among craft makers, designers and town planners long afterwards.
The Arts and Crafts philosophy derived partly from John Ruskin’s social criticism, which related the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and to the nature of work.
Ruskin considered the sort of mechanised production and division of labour that had been created in the industrial revolution to be “servile labour”. He thought a healthy and moral society required independent workers who designed the things they made.
Cork’s current celebrations also focus on the significance of design. Ruskin had argued that the separation of the intellectual act of design from the manual act of physical creation was both socially and aesthetically damaging.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1850 by a group of friends in Oxford who combined their love of Romanticism with a commitment to social reform.
Two of their number, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, were so inspired by their tour of the cathedrals of France that they gave up their original intention of joining the priesthood to pursue careers in the visual arts.
In record time, they had remarkably become proficient in stone and wood carving, embroidery, metalwork and the making of illuminated manuscripts. Morris insisted that no work was carried out in his workshops before he had mastered the techniques and materials himself.
He insisted that “without dignified, creative human occupation, people become disconnected from life”.
The Arts and Crafts style emerged from the attempt to reform design and decoration, from reaction to machine- production, and a belief that “ornament must be secondary to the thing decorated”.
Morris wrote that the treasures in the museums were only the common utensils used in households of the medieval age, when hundreds of churches — each one a masterpiece — were built by unsophisticated peasants.
The movement spread to Ireland at a highly significant time for the nation’s cultural development. It was a visual counterpart to the literary revival of the time.
The Arts and Crafts use of stained glass was popular in Ireland, with artists Harry Clarke and Evie Hone.
The architecture of the style is represented by the Honan Chapel (1916) in the grounds of University College Cork.
Celtic motifs became popular again with the movement, in silvercraft, carpet design, book illustrations and hand-carved furniture.
Mary Palmer is on the Cork Craft and Design Month’s organising committee. She is also a professional craft maker who creates ornate and beautifully detained quilts, and recently won an Irish Textile Network award at the RDS. She took time out from a hectic schedule to tell me something about her work.
Mary, how did you become so passionate about quilting and the arts?
Well, it was a process of elimination really. I’m originally from Detroit, and I trained in automotive design. But when we got married, my husband and I decided we wanted to travel around Ireland and, somehow or another, we stayed.
But it turned out that my training in automotive design didn’t really translate here, and I didn’t have a work permit, so I took up knitting, then patchwork. I had a background in drafting and technical drawing, and that stood me in good stead.
So I learned quilting and patchwork here. And eventually, I taught classes, had a sort of shop in the house, and started a quilting service.
What is it about the work that continues to inspire you?
All crafts tell a story about the past, present and even the future. In quilting and patchwork, there are scraps and also the pieces that were meant to be used for that purpose. It is so, so satisfying to create a piece in this way.
For all makers, there’s nothing like that pleasure. Some of my pieces are designed as wall-hangings and others are actual quilts. I also exhibit. I consider myself to be very lucky living in such a creative county as Cork.
Mary, what do you consider to be the importance of these arts in today’s world?
There’s the aesthetic importance of crafts, having something beautiful in our lives, something tactile — an energy.
There’s something about handmade goods that can’t be replicated. And then there’s the importance to the community, supporting local businesses. Most of all, there’s the sense of satisfaction makers get from practising their craft.
How long have you lived here?
We bought our house in Aherla 25 years ago, and we raised our family there. We also bought a bungalow in Adrigole, a beautiful location, and when the children were young, we used to spend every summer there. So what started off as giving Ireland a try for five or six years, has become a way of life, and we’re very happy here.
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