Lasting the course at the National Design & Craft Gallery

Carol O’Callaghan visits a new exhibition and talks to its curator about the making, impact and collecting of craft across a range of practices — ceramics, furniture, glassware, textiles, stone, and jewellery-making.

Lasting the course at the National Design & Craft Gallery

Carol O’Callaghan visits a new exhibition and talks to its curator about the making, impact and collecting of craft across a range of practices — ceramics, furniture, glassware, textiles, stone, and jewellery-making.

SINCE 2000, the National Design & Craft Gallery has showcased Irish and international crafted design from its space in the restored 18th century stables of Kilkenny Castle, a location rich in heritage straddling many centuries.

Originally the home of Kilkenny Design Workshops which were founded there in the 1960s to develop an Irish crafted design industry on a par with Scandinavia, the gallery’s programme of exhibitions and associated events, continues to evolve and support the development of our craft heritage.

The current show, ‘Lasting Impressions’, is curated by Gregory Parsons, who at this stage is an experienced hand at working with the National Design & Craft Gallery, having curated two other exhibitions there in recent years, although much of his work is with the renowned Ruthin Centre in Wales.

He has chosen works for the exhibition by makers whom he considers leaders in their fields, working across a range of practices — ceramics, furniture, glassware, textiles, stone, and jewellery-making. Each maker’s technique, aesthetics and individuality signals a standard in their respective fields that not only makes the pieces covetable, but heirlooms of the future.

Irish furniture maker Cillian O’Súilleabháin at ‘Lasting Impressions’, National Craft & Design Gallery, Kilkenny.
Irish furniture maker Cillian O’Súilleabháin at ‘Lasting Impressions’, National Craft & Design Gallery, Kilkenny.

“The exhibitors here excel,” Gregory explains. “Their personal creative-making skills become their signature, embedding something of themselves into every object they make, creating a lasting impression. They are makers who develop individual voices that sustain their practice. They may be innovative and cutting edge or using old techniques in new ways. They set themselves apart from the rest and their immense skill should be celebrated.”

Getting to the finished exhibition was 18 months in the making, starting with consultation and then partnership with the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland and Ruthin Craft Centre to where the exhibition will relocate in July.

“I started looking at makers from my other work as a craft mentor and curator,” says Gregory. “I wanted to include Irish, Irish-based, and UK wide crafters across all borders, that would make a lasting impression in a good cross-section of genres. Some pieces were already made or being made, others were made especially for the show.”

Essential to the viewing experience, he choose works which would sit well together in the gallery space, something not without an element of artistic serendipity as Liz Nilssen’s textiles have settled in beneath Neil Wilkins chandelier, where visitors will note a similarity in the shape of the works, and Ptolemy Mann’s coloured textile work, makes a happy match with John McKeag’s ceramics.

Glass maker Neil Wilkin at ‘Lasting Impressions’, National Craft & Design Gallery, Kilkenny.
Glass maker Neil Wilkin at ‘Lasting Impressions’, National Craft & Design Gallery, Kilkenny.

Giving the exhibition visitor a more comprehensive experience, the subtle sub-theme of collecting craft, which ultimately creates the heirloom, expands the narrative of the curating. It’s a topic deliberately researched by Gregory in the planning stages of the exhibition.

He explains: “I looked at private and public collecting to see what it is about a piece of work that makes you want to buy it, or commission a piece from a maker.”

One of these was the National Museum of Scotland. “They and other public bodies are looking at makers with a reputation, with a name already, and they want a good representation of that maker’s career,” he says.

“They’ll go to shows and might see an emerging maker and buy from them which could launch their career.

“Or sometimes a museum might be looking for a particular technique they are missing in their collection.

“Private collectors can do what they want. They might just get a gut feeling about a piece or the maker and start collecting them, or might want a particular piece to complete a collection.

“Sometimes, even a relationship develops and the collector becomes a mentor to the maker.” Such complexity and layers of theme and sub-theme are not easily conveyed through 18 hand-crafted objects. But it’s how the exhibits are sited which serves to coax the viewer into considering colour, form and texture; the making of the objects and materials used, and, ultimately, a lasting impression.

Clare-based textile and embroidery maker Nicola Henley at ‘Lasting Impressions’.
Clare-based textile and embroidery maker Nicola Henley at ‘Lasting Impressions’.

Supporting and expanding the topic is an on-going programme of events accompanying the exhibition, including a roundtable discussion on the topic of collecting, with participants including Jennifer Goff of the National Museum of Ireland, who gives a perspective on developing a collection for the state.

Later this month a programme of meeting the makers and masterclasses continues with the topic of textiles and how myth and culture are explore through stitch.

Lasting Impressions runs until July 4. For details www.ndcg.org.

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