There is nothing like a deadline to make or break an artist. There is an added anxiety that can spur on the creativity or kill it completely. Thus, the arrival of the exhibition of Ulster University Ceramics, jewellery and silversmithing graduates at Craft NI exhibition space gives a much needed opportunity for the graduates of Ulster University 2021 to show their work.
Final year shows are an anxious time with the 2021 graduates having the added anxiety of gaining access to workshop or kiln time not knowing if it was going to cease before the completion of work.
Curated by Kim Mawhinney of The Ulster Museum, the selected pieces are an inspiration. Saorla Ní Chearúllain has made a body of work entitled ‘Echoes’ inspired by the very specific ruined ghost village called Glentornan in Donegal. Her research included maps, historical records, site visits and aerial photographs. The viewer may recognise the patchwork fields and craggy feeling of derelict cottages (made in wild clay) as belonging to parts of Ireland without needing to know the specific location. But it gives extra credence to the pieces by knowing they come from an authentic space of personal knowledge. Saorla hopes “her work casts shadows, inviting the onlooker to reminiscence about what once was”.
Rebecca Cunningham’s inspiration comes from social constructs — the hand-thrown forms symbolising the female figure. The pieces are in all shapes and sizes, just like us women. They have a beautiful porcelain exterior colour with a textured interior “which aims to represent the influence of internalised misogyny on girls and women”. That's quite something to represent in a texture, but somehow, she manages it.
Tracey Johnston’s pots are a personal favourite as they refer to the landscape and textures around Strangford Lough. During lockdown, she joined a group of wild swimmers and like many who had access to the sea during this time was refreshed and enlivened by the experience. She focuses on the west of the lough in particular: drumlins, ploughed field textures and the Narrows at the mouth of the lough all feature in her perfected circular space — sometimes using local clay.
Sorcha Groocock captures in porcelain the year we have had that is like no other. She made 21 individual sculptures, casting household objects such as bleach bottles that were bought in bulk at the beginning of the pandemic and introducing historical and contemporary imagery such as Belfast riots, 'Eat Out to Help Out', 'Justice for George Floyd' and 'Welcome to the United States of America — 0 days since a Mass Shooting'. It’s interesting to see how permanent these all seem cast in the reverence and permanence of porcelain.
As with all art forms, the technology is ever-evolving as is the artist's choice. The artist can choose to use these different technologies as they evolve or not. The joy of the artist can simply come in the freedom and choice. Erin Calvert's work focuses on abnormalities of the flesh such as warts, using soft wear to produce 3D prints, that were then used as moulds for liquid silicone rubber. The result is an interesting bulbus flesh coloured whimsey exhibited in preserve jars like specimens, part curiosity, part creepy.
Lessa Espener has used her previous experience of working within the NHS as a manager of an area which manufactured facial prosthesis and focused on the mouth for her pieces. Witness ‘modern scold', a piece to insert in the mouth to prevent disinformation about 5G, the coronavirus and vaccinations. Another called ‘They say she drinks’ is an embossed mouth piece — a comment on how some people have dealt with the lockdown by drinking.
What are the next steps for these graduates and all the others? That depends on so many things: luck, support, exposure, appreciation, personal circumstances, the desire to succeed. People buying their work. All these things and more. What is certain is that the creative spirit is alive and pushing through in Belfast.
Array Collective Belfast have been over to Coventry installing their Turner Prize submission which opens on the September. Earlier in the year, I reported on the three sculptures at F.E McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge: Ellie Niblock, Paddy Bloomer and Stephen Wilson.
It was not revealed at the time that they were part of the Sky Arts Landmark programme where artists from different regions of the UK get two weeks to compete against each other and produce a public sculpture. The programme is on Sky arts Freeview channel on Mondays and the North of Ireland heat is on October 4. So if you want to cheer on the local talent that’s the time to do it.