A Visit to Ruthin Craft Centre

In a previous life, working for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, I spent a lot of time dashing across North Wales in the car, usually passing through Ruthin in the rain. It was pretty wet the day I finally made it to Ruthin Craft Centre, a long motorway drive from West Yorkshire. It is a place that in the short time the new centre has been open (July 2008) has become a must-see place to visit, if not for the crafts but for the inspired architecture of this gallery and studio development. The design by Segison Bates Architects rebuilds the previous centre on its original site and cleverly references local materials and landscape of the Clywdian Hills. It may look as though you are driving into a Tesco’s car park when you arrive, but that feeling disappears the moment you enter the courtyard, flanked by two ‘arms’ of artists’ studios that gradually embrace you to enter the galleries (right) or the spacious restaurant / café (left).

Barker 1

Jo Barker's Light Tapestry

The reason for my visit was two-fold: a major exhibition of tapestry was in its final days; I had an appointment to meet director Phillip Hughes about my forthcoming project with Jilly Edwards and my own Fifteen Images collaboration with Alice Fox. I expected a brief chat and possibly a cup of coffee, but this turned into a three-hour meeting (with education director Elen Bonner) and lunch! Of course it’s very gratifying when a gallery director has clearly made time to look at your work (on the web) and doesn’t need to be taken through it from scratch. For Fifteen Images this is a difficulty because it is a collaborative work operating across several mediums and uses aspects of new technology. For Phillip Hughes my completed work held the seeds of my projected work on Sense of Place with Jilly Edwards, and music and technology are already recognised as having roles to play in the scheme of things at Ruthin Craft Centre.

LT Studio

Laura Thomas- visiting artist's studio @ Ruthin

Before I had barely entered the courtyard of the Centre there was a sign in one of the artists’ studios announcing that designer/weaver Laura Thomas was currently artist in residence. I’d emailed Laura the day before to tell her of my visit and hoped I might get to see what she was up to. Sadly she wasn’t in residence that day, but I had a friendly letter telling me she’d just written up her blog to include details and images of the start of her residency as part of the Creative Ambassador Wales programme. Her blog is really worth a look, not so much to see her weaving but to see her ‘design development’ using painting and collage. It’s such examples by practicing artists that I really, really missed being introduced to as part of my late lamented HNC @ Bradford course. We were never shown any examples of ‘real world’ design development and simply left to ourselves to learn how to do it. Throughout the entire course there was no contact at all with practitioners. This is frankly inexcusable in today’s vocation-led culture when so much of what was being studied relates to industry practice. Whilst I came to admire much of my colleagues work in this area of design, it is not the same as contact with someone who is out there ‘doing it’. Of course several of us did make contact with professionals and visited studios, but as to sharing those experiences . . .

I’ve held a serious admiration for the work of Laura Thomas almost since I began to study woven textile design. She is running a number of public workshops and artist-led sessions during her time at Ruthin, and I’m hoping I can get to at least one to learn at first hand a little about this weaver who seems so very much for our time – both in her designs and materials. She has such clear, clean, straightforward design ideas, and they are beautifully executed. There’s a striking mix of order and disorder in her work that I find invigorating and carrying a strength that I have rarely found elsewhere. It doesn’t have any of that Welshness that seems to pervade so much art of the principality. Welshness? Hmm. This is a term I found myself using when working with the BBC in Wales. As a composer it was very easy to fall under the spell of the landscape and all that social history stuff and be referential about the dark and affecting mountains and valleys, which is why I tried very hard not to go near it (much as I have an affection for it). I think Laura would have thoroughly approved of my first piece for BBC Wales called Conversations In Colour based around the work of Josef Albers. This multi-location piece celebrated the kind of colour-thinking Laura has made her own. I’m sure she has a copy of Albers’ Interactions in Colour on her bookshelf!

Sadly, in one respect, time was not on my side when it came to view the exhibition Follow a Thread. I found myself with just an hour to look at work that really required two or three. Never mind, I got so much out of what I was able to view in detail that I can say with confidence that this was one of the most valuable and enjoyable exhibitions of tapestry I’ve been to. This varied selection of work from just five artists was just right for me, as someone starting out on the road with tapestry weaving.

Green 1

My sketch of Related Thoughts by Linda Green

I was immediately taken with a body of work which really didn’t fit the traditional tapestry mode at all. No woolly pictures on the wall here! Linda Green’s work simply captured my imagination, and that of my companion for the day (who went home and made something herself that referenced Green’s work). I haven’t done that, but I did make quite a lot of drawings and took a few reluctant photos (yes, you can take photos at Ruthin, but the light isn’t brilliant). Her work is small-scale, but big in intent and gesture. I could imagine it in my home (better in my studio though where white walls predominate). I loved her Related Thoughts, a strung-out assemblage of threads upon which tiny (often woven) objects had been placed. Some were traditionally woven, some found-objects such as card, a sweetie paper, a piece of wood, all no more than two centimetres square. The magical part of this piece was her use of shadow emanating from the structure being held away from the wall by a very short distance. On her American gallery’s website you can see a very good example of this technique in a piece called Chinese Whispers. Very striking.

Exploring Structure 3

Detail from Exploring Structure - a personal journey

The other piece I loved (and could imagine owning) was Exploring Structure – a personal journey. Imagine a shelf 2500cm long with a collection of miniature tapestry frames assembled upon it. Some are really tiny, none bigger than 15 cm high. Every one is different. Some look as though they were made with driftwood, discarded rubbish (a cocktail stick, lolly sticks), lots of different yarns and fibres woven in miniature pieces of lively colours. It was a kind of folk-art gathering, ‘things I made on holiday from beachcombing’. Brilliant! It made me smile and remember seaside days (in Wales) with children picking up stuff they invariably brought home as treasures then forgot about.

Brennan 1

My analysis of Sara Brennan's Black, Blue & Grey Series (click the image to enlarge)

I took some time too over the more conventional tapestry of Sara Brennan. I was puzzled by this work to begin with. It carries a kind of minimalist stamp. Just a few colours carefully disposed in pieces that were no bigger than a paperback book, and arranged in series, such as her Black, Blue, and Grey Series of 2001-2. My colour analysis of this drew me into the quality of this conception and its woven nature. There is great subtlety here that rewarded a patient gaze. Her colour palette doesn’t immediately attract, but wait a bit and get in close, and there are surprises and delights to enjoy. I don’t think I’ll look at the colour grey in the same way again . . . I’d seen before her Broken White Band with Pink (2005), but not in the flesh, and I was struck by the detail and the subtlety of it all, though applied in a very different way. This work demonstrates how fascinating tapestry can be as an alternative to the painted surface. Sure, it’s very textural. You want to stroke it – well I do. This work demonstrated to me the intrinsic difference between the brushstroke and the beaten yarn. It’s a kind of pointillism extraordinaire, but executed with wool and linen, and it seems alive in a way a similar painted surface does not. Colours few painters would dare to use can look wonderful in tapestry, and Sara Brennan I reckon understands this and plays on it.

Brennan 2

Detail from Sara Brennan's Broken White Band with Pink

My companion loved Jo Barker’s painterly (and large) tapestries. They were striking and wonderfully colourful. But I came to them after Green and Brennan and they didn’t grab me as I’d expected (from viewing the photographs on the Centre’s website) they would. Anna Ray was a different matter. Her thread was not tapestry but embroidered stitch, and Wow! is a gentle word to describe their affect (for someone who doesn’t stitch). Her garden series was beautiful, restrained, and embodied garden-ness to a degree that surprised both my gardener companion and me (garden enthusiast from deckchair). In the Garden is a series of eight works on embroidered silk. This work is the antithesis of Alice Kettle style machine embroidery. This is serious artwork and you forget the medium. Collectively this is an affecting series that provokes music and poetry in me. The garden in question is an unusual one. It is Winterbourne Botanic Garden in Birmingham where Anna was artist in residence for a short time. This is a place I must visit – described as a six-acre Arts & Crafts garden of a suburban villa. All in all I do recommend you to visit the In the Garden presentation on Anna Ray’s website. I don’t often get enthusiastic about websites, but this is one I shall go back to and think about carefully. The balance of image and text is compelling.

Ruthin in  > out

A view from Gallery 2 glass show to the studio courtyard

There was more to see at Ruthin, but time and circumstances took us away back to some very slow movement on the motorway and home. Now I’ve been to Ruthin I know I’ll go back. I’ll certainly reroute my journeys to Lyn via Ruthin in future. It was such a friendly and welcoming place, beautifully designed (baby change facilities in men’s toilets – full marks there from a father (of six – four girls, two boys) who has faced that problem often), and lots to see. We missed visiting Cefyn Burgess studio (just ran out of time), but as I was waiting at reception one of Burgess’ weavers was unpacking a box of scarves hot off the loom and, having announced my interest as a weaver, was invited to explore the box: some lovely things, particularly the pleated designs that still seem to be very much in vogue these days. Back to the loom for me, and further attempts at basic tapestry techniques with raffia and linen on a wool/cotton warp. More anon.

A small experiment in tapestry

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2 Responses to “A Visit to Ruthin Craft Centre”

  1. Dot Says:

    I get a feeling I’m going to enjoy your weaving adventures post-Bradford much more! I’m very interested to know more about the Ruthin Craft Centre, it’s on the list I have for possible day trips while I’m “between jobs”.

  2. Laura Thomas Says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words about my work! And yes, you guess correctly I do have the Albers book on my bookshelves, but it was only bought a couple of months ago in preparation for the colour workshop I did at the Cardiff School of Architecture. Instinct is the primary feeder of my use of colour, although its been extremely interesting to learn a little of the theory behind my instinct.

    I like too what you say about ‘Welshness’. I do consider my Welsh heritage vital in my aesthetic vocabulary and heritage but there’s so much more to ‘Welsh’ art and design than the predictable.

    You’ll also be pleased to know that I similarly fell under the spell of Anna Ray’s and Linda Green’s work. Wow, what an exhibition – I concur, one of the best textile shows I’ve seen. Has you rightly suggest its the kind of show that requires time to absorb. I think I went to look at the exhibition every day during my last stint at the Centre.

    Hopefully next time you visit the centre it’ll coincide with when I’m there – would be great to meet and talk ‘weave’!

    All the best,

    Laura

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