At the moment I am coordinating an Arts Council funded project called Makers & Tools. I thought it might be interesting to share the ideas behind the project and how it has developed in the last couple of years. [This text was originally written during the pilot project in 2017 but I’ve expanded it to reflect what I learnt and how the current iteration of Makers & Tools in 2019 has developed.]
From my conversations with makers, it was obvious how important tools are to craftspeople; how makers come to rely on specific tools that perform well, or do particular jobs. The tools are chosen to produce a certain effect or because they will help the maker achieve the result they want. Tools are aids. They are selected and utilised. I began to wonder, what if the position of tools in a maker’s practice were reversed – what if the tool came first? This notion, along with the idea of a tool swap, a collaborative process, led to the framework of the project: I wanted to see what would happen when the role of tools in a maker’s practice was disrupted. What happens if a maker doesn’t choose her tools? What if she is gifted a tool crafted by another maker? What effect does this benign intervention have on her making process, and what possibilities does this allow?
The project went through two stages. In the first, the makers were asked to create their own idea of a tool. How they chose to define a ‘tool’ was up to them. Once the tools were made, I asked each maker to send the tool on to another maker, and in this way the group was connected. The second stage of the project was for each maker to create an object in response to the tool they had been sent. They were free to interpret the tool in whatever way they felt appropriate, whether it was used practically to create, or conceptually to inspire, the new work. Nothing was fixed: no limits were placed on the work – they could use whichever materials they liked, in whatever way they wanted. Also, the objects did not have to be finished, finessed objects; a rarity for a craft maker.
Much of this project has been about letting go and allowing things to happen, both for me as the coordinator, and for the makers. I deliberately maintained a distance, not too involved in the makers’ process, instead offering quiet, open direction. I didn’t give the makers much information about each other, and they didn’t know who they were making tools for until the tools were made. This project is a collaborative effort but, unlike direct collaborations between artists involving conversation and being physically present, this one was a quiet dialogue, indirectly spoken through tools and objects. There is a communication between the makers’ work, and the influences of each other’s practices on the objects can be deciphered, but it is subtle.
What was exciting to hear, as I gathered in the tools and the objects from the makers, is how this project has encouraged them to explore new processes or approaches without the fear of risk. The project sat alongside their professional making practice as a neutral space – this work does not have the pressure of being for a gallery, or being evaluated for a degree course, or needing to be sold. The project has offered an element of freedom which is difficult for makers to allow themselves.
The exhibition and Makers Q&A at Clayhill Arts during Somerset Art Weeks in October 2017 was such a positive experience. We had some fantastic conversations with the public and other artists, which helped me to start to bring quite a lot of the thinking I'd been having about expanding the project together. It seems that everyone has an experience and opinion of tools and this provides a lovely way into the work and examining what it is craft makers do. After the project ended I had such positive feedback from the makers on how the experience had pushed their practice forward, or given them much-needed time and space away from their own practice. In my day-to-day work with makers I can see this need to try something different, to take risks is vital to a maker's creative practice development. But I also wanted this conversation - about tools, about making, about craft career development - to be expanded with a wider audience.
Makers & Tools 2019 is that expanded project. At the heart of it are the 6 makers creating the objects you'll see in the exhibition, but alongside that we are hosting an ambitious programme of events for makers and the public. Events which will help connect people, support their developing practice, and encourage people to engage with contemporary craft.
It's my aim that every element of the project other makers engage with will be relevant to their needs and energising. That these audiences will make connections, feel a sense of possibility within their careers and gain confidence that they know where they can find support when they need it. For visitors to the open studios or exhibition, the audience for gallery talks, or participants in workshops, people will discover something surprising about craft and its creation that will spark their interest, giving them a greater awareness of craft and hopefully encourage them to make themselves.
Delivering this project wouldn't be possible without support from the venues and partners. I'm lucky that so many wonderful organisations - who themselves are championing craft and supporting makers' practices - were excited to be involved. Now that the project has been launched I can't wait to start sharing the work the makers have been doing and promoting all the events we have going on. It's going to be a really fantastic few months!
The project Residency/Open Studios runs from 11 -14 April at New Brewery Arts, Cirencester
The exhibition runs from 17 May – 15 June at The Old Fire Station, Oxford