Getting Engaged!

One of my aims before completing my MA in considering my future career was to explore possibilities within my practice in a socially engaged and participatory context. As part of this research I volunteered with Craftspace and their Making Together residency, which is a year-long programme of inter-generational making based workshops taking place at Birmingham Settlement, a community centre in Aston.

Separated into a series of three workshops, emerging artists are partnered with established makers focussing on either textiles, metal or clay. The project aims to provide an opportunity for children under the age of 5, along with their parents, carers and grandparents to explore new craft processes and techniques used by the artist in an open-ended way.

The workshops I attended were led by Theresa Nguyen an award winning silversmith based in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery quarter. Utilising traditional silversmithing, Theresa creates elegant emotionally charged pieces inspired by her background, nature and organic forms. Alongside emerging artist Hannah Brown, their workshops aimed to explore the materiality and surface applications of metal integrating traditional processes such as embossing, mark making, stamping and wirework.

It was fantastic to witness first-hand the immediate impact and reach a project like this can have. The activities such as embossing and wirework really engaged the adult participants. It was important to me to observe the adults learning, sharing and passing on their new skills to other participants. My favourite activity was the creation of a large copper shim panel, participants even as young as 7 months were encouraged to use textured hammers and burnishers to contribute to the collectively created piece. Observing the participants approaching and exploring a completely new skill with no boundaries opened up ideas within my own practice. I think I could benefit from adopting this approach more often, and by injecting a sense of freedom without a correct defined outcome could really open-up a little serendipity and new creative outcomes.

Reflecting on my volunteering experience, I began thinking about the breadth of my own practice and what would it take for me to work in this manner. I need to consider not just my organisational skills, but also channelling and communicating with emotional intelligence in engaging participants. Health and safety with metalwork, especially with young children is also a huge factor.  Funding for this type of project is limited, but opportunities such as with In:Site Festival  would be a great arena to develop this strand of my practice as I move forward beyond my MA.

Roberta Bernabei, Father and Son, 2016
Roberta Bernabei, Father and Son, 2016, brooch, copper, glass, brass, 60 x 40 x 15 mm, photo: Pino Bernabei

My research into participatory arts led me to Roberta Bernabei’s project Loughborough Jewels (2016), which really resonates with my own practice.  Described as an interactive exhibition to imbue community memories of Loughborough with jewellery, in order to inspire a new vision from local designers and architects for the future of Loughborough. Participants were interviewed, and encouraged to discuss an object, image or photograph which resonated strong personal memories of Loughborough. Bernabei interpreted the data into individual brooches, visualising and framing each personal trigger memory. I was particularly taken with one participants, Alison Mott’s account of the experience published on Loughborough History and Heritage Network. Mott discussed how jewellery is uniquely placed as a portable wearable object to the continue the conversation outside of the exhibition arena.

As for my brooch, I pinned it to my scarf as I left the exhibition then I headed off to do some shopping.  Within half an hour I’d bumped into a friend and told her all about the memory behind the image on the brooch.  I’ve told people the story several times since.  Before this, I never would have believed a piece of jewellery could hold a town’s history so effectively.  I’m rather pleased to find that indeed it can.

The core of my practice is based on the dialogue and provenance that frequently surrounds our most valued belongings and facilitating the continuation of these memories before they are lost. The link here in Bernabei’s Loughborough Jewels between memory, personal and collective in developing a link with heritage engagement is aspirational and I hope it is an avenue I can develop in positioning my own practice in the future.



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