First Curatorial Experience

The article below was first published in Making.ie on 1st November 2021.

My name is Niki Collier.  I am a textile artist working across installation, performance, conceptual and crafted works using sustainable materials.

This year, Mary Palmer, Quilt-maker and I were invited to organise and curate the Healthy Ireland ‘Keep Well' craft exhibition in Dublin.  Anxious to record the many experiences and positive outcomes that came from this project, I decided to write this article.

Keep Well

The ‘Keep Well’ campaign was launched by the Irish government in 2020, with the aim to support people and communities to mind their physical and mental health during covid-19.  Connecting with this campaign, the Design & Crafts Council Ireland (DCCI) focused on encouraging GANS to start projects that would offer people of all ages and abilities an opportunity to engage with a series of online creative activities. 

Significant creative projects were realised by groups such as Benchspace, Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association, Cork Textiles Network, Headford Lace, The Glass Society of Ireland, Feltmakers Ireland, Cork Craft & Design and the Quilters Guild of Ireland.

To highlight all of these, the Keep Well exhibition was organised to coincide with special events in Dublin Castle last October, including the World Crafts Council Europe General Assembly, the Design & Craft Council Ireland’s 50th Anniversary and Irish Craft Heroes exhibition, the launch of the What Colour is Metal exhibition as well as their annual AGM. 

The GANS Community

It was the first time that guilds, networks and associations (GANS) came together to exhibit in one venue.  This made it a particularly special exhibition and one which was supported enthusiastically by DCCI and CEO Rosemary Steen.

The Quilters Guild of Ireland encouraged creativity during lockdown by distributing some block pattern ideas to members and friends.  The result was the production of no less than 20 individual quilts, 2 of which were included in the exhibition. Mary Palmer played a huge part in organising the project with massive support from the quilting community throughout Ireland.

Spoonville was a creative project which distributed craft kits to school children.  It was organised by Benchspace in Cork and Sew Happy Creative.  It brought 700 people through making joyful spoons creatures.  Their spoon villages were a wonderful way to build communities while being isolated. They made an online video leading participants through the making process.  

Headford Lace commissioned Kilkee Forge to create a new bench, now located in the centre of Headford.  Together with another lacemaking-inspired bench created in 2018, it bookends ‘The Lacemaker’s Shoes’ walking tour. 

Cork Textiles Network created little silhouettes of buildings in wood, that could be used for cross-stitch.  These were distributed to the residents of nursing homes who had used sewing skills throughout their lives. 

Feltmakers Ireland developed their project with the International Feltmakers Association - a community based in the UK during the time when Brexit was happening.  This made coming together very important.  Templates of birds were distributed and members created over 60 colorful panels.

Irish Artist Blacksmith’s Association members each decorated an iron slat that joined together to complete a Keep Well Bench, assembled by Bushy Park Ironworks.

A project called Knitted Together, managed by Kilkenny County Council Arts Office with support from Creative Ireland encouraged the people of Kilkenny to pool their knitting and crocheting skills to make squares that could be sewn together to create large multi-coloured blankets.  The response was phenomenal, with over 180 participants from all over the South East.  No less than 75 blankets were constructed from the hundreds of colourful squares, some of which were exhibited in Dublin.  All the blankets were sold with proceeds going to charity.

Members of The Glass Society of Ireland worked together to create a quilt of glass pieces, each demonstrating a different technique of glassmaking.

The exhibition also showcased a selection of Collars from the Collar Ruff and Cuff call out conducted by DCCI’s Keep Well Project Co-ordinator Mary Whelan.  She invited people to design a collar or cuff at home during Covid, photograph it and upload it to a virtual exhibition.  Over 230 collars were submitted representing almost all craft disciplines!  As soon as restrictions lifted, it seemed natural that the selection of the collars be seen in public and an overlap with events at Dublin Castle were the perfect opportunity.

The exhibition was open for just 3.5 days between from Oct 14 and 18 and over 950 people visited.

Every Project is its People

This was my first experience curating on a national scale so I was delighted to have the support of Mary Palmer, my co-curator.  This was our first curatorial collaboration.  Despite other commitments, we were compelled to make this project successful and so proud to have made it happen.  We invited two transition year interns to assist us during the set-up. It was their first time witnessing such an ambitious project like our exhibition. We were delighted to see how hard-working and clever they were.  We taught them all sorts of skills, how to sew, how to use an electric screwdriver, to tie different kinds of knots and make large numbers of exhibits presentable.

It was wonderful to see the spread of age profiles across the exhibitors.  For example, the work of Kathie Earle, a professional lacemaker and craft hero, sat comfortably alongside that of 8-year old Saoirse Wymss.  Some people had come back to making after a long absence, others had used it as a means of experimenting with new ideas.  There were participants from abroad who were delighted to exhibit alongside their Irish counterparts.  As a result of such engagements, certain guilds saw an increase in membership of up to 30%!

Creative Challenges of Curating Community Project

There were unique challenges associated with this project, not least the scale and number of exhibits.  There were 9 groups – some of them with projects involving 600 participants or more!  We had to be very creative with our curation.

Finding a way to showcase 120 collars, 2 large quilts, 130 felt pieces, work so many different kinds of makers had its challenges, but the fact that some had been assembled into large single works such as the Glass Quilt and the Keep Well Bench, was hugely helpful.  We encountered many challenges, but the we ploughed on as we were passionate to celebrate these unique projects and collaborations. The large visitor numbers over the 3.5 days of open-time was humbling.

Creativity for Everyone!

With the challenges we are facing in our social fabric any creativity that brings us together as one, is very important.  Creativity is here to stay and the support of this initiative was a visionary engagement with our community.  We want to make this an annual event!

Makers shared their time and joy.  People gave it a go. It was all-inclusive event which also encouraged newcomers to our community.

Almost all projects incorporated outreach, whether it was to support a charity, or to connect with survivors of abuse and empower their voices through making.  Some groups connected with their colleagues internationally.  The Glass Quilt (Glassmakers Society) travelled to Venice Glass Week.  Feltmakers Ireland are having an international exhibition with some of the most inspiring contemporary makers in Pearce Museum in 2022. 

We makers welcome the opportunity to show you our passion and spark curiosity about our skills.  We are always ready to multiply our joy and give back!  Let’s all work together to make projects like this a regular feature in the Irish Craft Calendar!

- Dr. Niki Collier, November 2021

Dr. Niki Collier is a Dublin-based award-winning visual artist and designer working in fibre art and wearable technology.  Her work uses scale to spark empathy & empowerment from many sources. As a disabled woman, her practice is nurtured by the meaningful connections with people with various ability & diverse backgrounds.   She is a board member of the Design & Crafts Council Ireland.

Acknowledgements:

Photography by Ivylo Petroff with some exceptions (indicated).

Special thanks to 'Keep Well' Project Co-ordinator Mary Whelan, the Design & Crafts Council Ireland team and technicians and my co-curator Mary Palmer.

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