Neither North nor South: An essay by Louise Taylor

With a burst of creative energy, the 1988 West Midlands Crafts Open set out to show the public what a wealth and diversity of contemporary craft was made in the West Midlands. The project was the idea of the then Director of Craftspace, curator Julia Ellis, who knew that visitors would also want the chance to buy from the show. An advertising campaign and grass-roots research encouraged submissions from new and established makers alike. Their works were brought before a selection panel of experts to make sure that the exhibits reflected a high standard of quality and contemporary relevance. One of the benefits of this for West Midlands makers was that the selection panel returned to their places of work with a new, personal knowledge of the region’s craft. If established makers were not pushing forward with their work they didn’t get selected. Selectors and organisers hoped for daring new ideas, maybe an exciting entry from someone completely new, or a traditional craft technique or material reinvented. The show began at Craftspace’s then home, the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham (now the beautifully refurbished mac birmingham), and toured extensively, further promoting the work.

The success of the first project led to a commitment from Craftspace to make this open exhibition a regular feature and it took its series title, ‘Made in the Middle’, from 1995 onwards. From 2012 its impact was extended by including work made in the East as well as West Midlands.

The principles of regional focus, quality selection, selling to the public and touring extensively have been at the core of the exhibition on each of its seven incarnations over a period of thirty years. The exhibitions have been incredibly popular with the public. Nearly two hundred and fifty makers have had their work exhibited and seen by over 500,000 visitors to a Made in the Middle exhibition.

The engagement with makers, the publishing, symposia and associated education and community engagement activities have helped to document changes in craft and, from a survey in 2015, makers have given us their opinions of the role Made in the Middle has played in making their work more accessible. The seven exhibitions have also provided a much needed critical forum for makers whose studios are spread throughout the rural and urban areas of the Midlands regions, including the major cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Nottingham and largely rural counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Derbyshire among others. Jon Williams describes taking part as a welcome opportunity “to enter into discussion about crafts and what it means to be an artist making a living from their creative decisions.”

Taken together, the Made in the Middle exhibitions provide a microcosm of some of the key changes in craft practice since 1988. The effects that the makers feel are most relevant are the loss of craft courses in higher education and in schools; the development of the internet as a marketing tool and the expansion of the field of craft to include not only functional and decorative ‘studio craft’ objects but also more cross-disciplinary work ranging from sculpture and installation to social enterprise and new media. This may reflect a diversification in practice in order to survive the difficult years of the recession. However a broader and contemporary change in public attitude around food, creativity and community has taken place in that time, helping to greatly promote the profile of craft, as witnessed by the success of TV programmes such as the Great Pottery Throw Down and Kirstie’s Handmade Britain, as well as retail sites such as Not on the High Street.

Partly a reaction to the dislocations of the global economy and the bewildering choice of the internet, this movement has changed the ways we spend our time and encouraged us to participate in making. It has also fostered a greater interest in the personal and specific, so we want to know more about objects and how they are made. By extension we are interested in the stories of makers and their individual techniques and materials. Zoë Hillyard points to the rise of ‘social creativity’ creating a new way for people to engage with craft, as illustrated by her knit club and other such projects which now exist all over the UK. Jon Williams has taken this idea of social creativity into the production and conceptual basis of his work. Taking part in Made in the Middle 2012 kick started his investigation into digital technology and working with sound that he is still exploring to this day. Working in the expanded craft field with new collaborations and new technologies has enabled Williams to amalgamate his social engagement work with his own personal making. He says, “the two aspects have become one, each area informing the other. Back in the day, I saw them as two separate entities. There is now a holistic approach to my creative practice.”

Technology, digital tools now available and the internet of things, have had a huge impact across the board, particularly in the last fifteen years. In many media, from the work of Karina Thompson in digital textiles, to the work of Jon Williams incorporating sound with ceramics, digital practice has enabled makers to take their work in revolutionary directions. For Karina, digital programming and embroidery has enabled the human body to become a focus though not in a figurative sense, the programming process enabling her to explore and think deeply about genetics, chromosomes, the history of disease and the make-up of our flesh and blood. This has been expressed in a number of major commissions for healthcare and biomedical settings, such as the pieces 'Pattern Within', 2009 and 'The Leper's Skull', 2015. Such works illustrate a very different axis for expression and making in contemporary craft.

On a literal, business-focussed level, the internet has also revolutionised the opportunities to market oneself directly as a craftsperson. It does however hold some potential dangers, such as copying or being undercut on price. As Dennis Farrell says, “It’s never been easy to make a living from craft and I fear it’s getting harder as funding is withdrawn.” Selling direct as well as through platforms such as Etsy has fundamentally challenged the traditional route of supplying retail galleries with work on sale or return and this in turn has led to closures of retail galleries. Karen Johnson illustrates this well: she now sells exclusively to a local clientele through commission or online through her own website – both outlets are much more under her control than the traditional route of supplying a network of UK shops and galleries.

While positive about the observation that ‘craft and creative practice seems to have become more audience focused and participatory’, Anna Lorenz also laments, “The speed of contemporary society and the ‘flatness of the world’ through the internet and mobile phones has had an impact on the younger generation. Taking time to make seems an effort and thinking in 3D has become increasingly difficult.” There will perhaps always be tension between the perception and role of three-dimensional, hands-on making, inspired by materials, compared with operating virtually using digital tools or in a non-directly ‘fabricating’ role through participatory projects. In reality of course many makers exploit this ambiguity: what is now termed the expanded field of craft becomes a site for wider inter-disciplinary investigation and makers are able to freely move between three-dimensional and two-dimensional realities. While studio-based practice is no longer the only route it has by no means been abandoned, as can be seen in the products of many of the makers in Made in the Middle.

Made in the Middle is a dynamic way to inform people about the creativity, diversity and cultural activity of the Midlands. But the intention of the exhibition series is not to propose that there is a body of work which represents the region, it is not about homogeneity or a curated regional identity. After all, there is a good degree of happenstance and coincidence about county lines and where people choose to base themselves. Undoubtedly some practices such as studio glass lend themselves to the lower costs of studio space outside London and so there are economic imperatives of course. The strong contrasts of the industrial and rural landscapes of the region and the rich variety of people and places provide inspiration to makers. There are individuals who have developed strong connections with Midlands’ traditions and places, from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to the glass industry in Stourbridge and lace making in Nottingham. John Grayson, for example, explores the history of the enamelling industry in Bilston and researches the intricacies of the over two hundred year old technique while employing a language which marries quirky contemporary life with traditional forms, such as hinged boxes and tableware.

But what does it mean to be shown as a regional maker? Taking part gives exposure and creates sales and further opportunities to exhibit and sell. Many makers explain that is has helped them to feel part of a network and a community where they can bounce ideas off others and see what else is going on. For others who were selected soon after graduating, it gave them confidence and validation and built their CVs; for all makers selected it provides a focus to make new work, often trying out new ideas or a bigger scale. Our survey of makers who have taken part in Made in the Middle exhibitions over the years shows that Craftspace’s organisation, communication and support are consistent and invaluable, helping the makers develop creatively and become more successful and better known. “It definitely supported my application to key national craft fairs, led to press coverage and gallery exhibition invitations.” As Esther Lord puts it, “It is important for local people to see what is being produced, often in hidden little workshops and studios, and hopefully to be interested and inspired by it, and perhaps see the value in support generally for the arts, and preserving and celebrating craft and making skills.”

Like all craft, a wonderful range of stories is encompassed in the individual lives of makers from the Made in the Middle series. Mike Gell and Jane Moore have each contributed significantly to sales of handmade jewellery through their regional retail outlets. Anna Lorenz had her first career as a telecoms engineer and when she trained as a goldsmith she had “an affinity with a ‘hands-on approach’ and working with metal in a more technical sense”. Likewise Kevin Grey retrained as a silversmith after twenty years making specialist parts in sheet metal for luxury cars; he has incorporated his knowledge of technology, such as laser and tig welding, gained from his industrial environment into his sinuous silver objects. A commitment to sustainability, considered use and re-use of materials and embracing new technology come up time and again as reference points. Ruth Spaak’s mixed media, Sharon Porteous’ textiles, Zoë Hillyard’s ceramics and Andrew Holmes’ furniture are all examples of re-use and recycling. Jennifer Collier, an exhibitor in 2012, is another thoughtful recycler, making use of found paper, which led to a high profile commission for the cover design of the book ‘The Thoughtful Dresser’, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Pottinger & Cole’s commitment to sustainability led them to root the fabrication of their furniture and products in the Midlands, all materials and skills sourced within a ten mile radius of their studio.

I look forward to seeing the next Made in the Middle, to finding out about new techniques, to see and support makers both established and new and to test the pulse of contemporary craft as illustrated by the selected works.

Louise Taylor, former Director of the Crafts Council, worked with Craftspace from 1991-96 and was curator of the 1995 Made in the Middle exhibition.