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Jewellery, woodcraft, glass and textiles at Bonhoga show

by Alastair Hamilton -

The third and last of this year’s “Made in Shetland” exhibitions at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale has demonstrated, once more, the range and quality of work made by local craftspeople.

This time, the items on display include jewellery from Esmé Wilcock and Mike Finnie (who is also showing some lino prints and sculptural work); wooden furniture and accessories from Paparwark; glass, including more jewellery, from Glansin Glass; and textiles from Nielanell and Andrea Williamson.

Moving around the gallery, we come first to work by Mike Finnie. Mike, an architect by profession, was always interested in watercolour painting and drawing, and this show includes six lino prints that reflect his attachment to Shetland’s traditional building forms. However, most of his exhibits are in the form of jewellery, which he makes in his studio, Red Houss, in East Burra.

Some of Mike’s items are handmade in silver or copper. Brooches, pendants and other items may be formed in sterling silver and then acid-etched, with his intricate and beautiful Fair Isle patterns becoming especially popular. Recently, he has developed whale jewellery in silver or copper, which may be etched or beaten.

Other pieces use materials found close to home, including glass, pottery and shell found on beaches, or soapstone (steatite), which has been worked in Shetland since ancient times. However, not all the inspiration is local. His longstanding interest in Middle Eastern cultures is reflected in the occasional use of fragments or pottery or tile from Iran and Turkey.

This show also includes a number of small and very striking sculptural items in silver and copper, a couple of them involving old wood from ships, one of them featured at the head of this article.

Furniture designer and craftsman, Cecil Tait, set up Paparwark in 2003 after completing courses in Glasgow and High Wycombe; he has a BA (Hons) in Furniture Craftsmanship and Design and became a member of the Guild of Master Craftsmen in 2013. He chairs the Shetland Arts and Crafts Association. The firm’s name stems from the Papar, Celtic monks who lived among the Pictish peoples of Shetland before the Viking era.

Cecil is well known in Shetland for his furniture, which he makes in his workshop overlooking St Ninian’s ayre, the strikingly beautiful tombolo in Shetland’s south mainland. He has undertaken many commissions for public clients and private individuals, ranging from large conference tables to breakfast bars and chairs. Such is the demand for his pieces that the business has employed several people, including apprentices.

Cecil has built up a strong reputation for fine craftsmanship and the innovative use of traditional skills. This show includes a rocking chair and a bench. Also on display are several smaller examples of Cecil’s work, including candlesticks, a clock and a fiddle-stand.

Shetland is universally associated with knitwear and lace, but what’s perhaps not quite so well known is the sheer range of textiles that the islands produce. Whilst traditional Fair Isle is still the bedrock of the tradition, designers such as Victoria Gibson have, over the past forty years or so, taken knitters in new directions. These days, innovation is stimulated by the highly-regarded BA (Hons) Contemporary Textiles course at Shetland College UHI.

Among these innovators is Niela Nell Kalra, whose studio in Hoswick, Sandwick is filled with distinctive garments that explore new combinations of colour, texture and material. Niela has been developing collections since 2008, applying her study of the shape, drape and use of traditional garments to create strikingly beautiful pieces that are also eminently practical.

Among the items on display is what Niela describes as a hybrid embracing two traditions. Drawn to the fisherman’s canvas or sack-cloth smock or – in Shetland – “smookie”, she wondered how its shape could be reproduced in knit, invoking the traditional Fair Isle jumper. The result is a “slightly trapeze-shaped body” to which she’s added storm cuffs.

The pattern – firmly set in the Shetland tradition – is one known as “Churchill” because Winston Churchill was given a jumper using that motif. The garments, in British lambswool, are made for Niela by a neighbouring knitwear firm, Laurence Odie Knitwear.

Colour and texture feature just as prominently in an entirely different medium, the glass work of Cheryl Jamieson. Her studio, Glansin Glass, is in Shetland’s northernmost inhabited island, Unst, where inspiration comes from the environment, heritage, archaeology and geology. The landscape – hills, sea, sky - is clearly a powerful influence.

Cheryl’s use of glass is innovative and the results – whether in jewellery, plates, fused glass landscapes or one-off pieces– have won her many admirers. The jewellery includes pendants, brooches, earrings and rings.

All of this work is hand-cut and fired in her workshop and Cheryl loves to experiment with new ideas and techniques. A visit to Unst should be on every Shetland itinerary and it’s possible to visit Cheryl at her studio.

The connection between Shetland’s environment and jewellery design is just as direct in the work of Esmé Wilcock. In her seashell collection, every item is individually cast and finished by hand, using traditional sand casting. Moist sand is tightly pressed around a model of the item to be cast and, when the model is removed, the sand forms a mould into which molten metal is poured. The technique ensures that each piece has its own distinctive markings. The sand comes from Shetland beaches and she often includes the original model with the finished item.

Esmé also uses found material from the beaches around her home in Hillswick, in Shetland’s north mainland. Glass and ceramic material is embedded in the pieces, reinforcing the link between the work and its origin.

The inspiration for a whole range of Esmé’s jewellery comes from those little cowrie shells that are beautiful but not always easy to find. They’re known in Shetland (as well as in Orkney and north-east Scotland) as “grotti buckies”. She has reproduced them superbly.

We come last, in this eclectic show, to the colourful knitwear made by Andrea Williamson in her workshop in the north-eastern island of Whalsay, a community at the heart of Shetland’s fishing tradition.

Andrea has a BA (Hons) in Fashion Textile Design, which she gained at the University of Brighton. Like so many other artists, craftspeople and designers, her surroundings supply the stimulus and Shetland traditional designs play their part; however, she introduces playful, illustrative motifs, suggesting a narrative.

Her recent pieces are very much rooted in the seascapes and landscapes of Whalsay, and especially in their details, “local cliffs, reflections cast and distorted in the water, the manmade objects positioned in the landscape, fences and pontoons, buoys, ropes, and pulled-up boats”.

She picks up “splashes of paint, bright colours against the beach stones and dark seaweed”. She records these as field sketches and, she says, the knitted pieces are “a personal interpretation of the shapes and colours picked from my favourite places”.

These shows at Bonhoga have given many members of Shetland’s burgeoning arts and crafts community a new opportunity to introduce themselves and their work to local people and visitors, who are able to buy and take away many of the items on the spot. Apart from that, Bonhoga also appeals because of its excellent conservatory café and a shop that displays a great range of craft items, books and cards from Shetland and farther afield.

As the archaeological record shows, artists and makers have been active in these islands for millennia, but the expansion of art and craft activity over recent decades is really striking. If you’re a visitor, you’ll find lots to interest you on the Shetland Craft Trail; and if you’re an artist or craftsperson who’d like to join a vibrant community of like-minded folk, you could find inspiration and a welcome here, as many others have done.

you could find inspiration and a welcome here

Posted in: Creative Scene

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