Coincidentally Kilkenny

I haven’t written a blog post for over a year and too much has happened to fit it all into this relaunch edition. So here’s a three sentence synopsis to get the ball rolling. I’m not in Florence anymore, nor did I return to London as originally planned. I’m back in Ireland, where I was happily working in the library of my old alma mater NCAD until another opportunity presented itself. That opportunity is in Kilkenny, and so I’ll make this medieval city my home for the next two years.

I have managed to secure a place on the intensive Jewellery and Goldsmithing Skills & Design Course run by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland (DCCOI). Twelve of us will spend our days making jewellery on the upper floor of the curved, 18th-century former coach house and stables at the Castle Yard. The Kilkenny Design Centre, directly opposite Kilkenny Castle, occupies the roadside section of buildings and we are in the courtyard behind, right above the National Craft Gallery. My workbench sits in the centre of the curved studio, where out of the cartwheel windows I can see the clock-tower and arched courtyard entrance to my left and Butler House to my right. I have attempted to photobomb the tourists in the courtyard below whenever they point the camera in the direction of our windows, but so far I believe I have been unsuccessful.

View of castle yard from studioView of butler house from studio

One day a couple of weeks ago I was wandering down High Street in Kilkenny, trying to decide whether to restart my blog. As I was mulling this over, I could hear loud drumming coming from the Tholsel, and as I drew nearer I could see something which stopped me in my tracks. A group of Florentine flag throwers were performing under the covered arcade of the Tholsel. I was transported back to Italy by this scene, which could have been happening under a Florentine portico. I had previously seen this group perform on my way home from jewellery school in Italy two years ago! Such a strange coincidence and a nice bridge from my last blog post to this one.

Kilkenny castle
Kilkenny Castle, across the street from the Castle Yard.
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Castle Yard, home of the DCCOI. Our view from the break room.

If the Florentine flag throwing wasn’t enough of a coincidence, I have another one to put with it. Prior to my interview for this course I had never been to Kilkenny, but knew this building very well before I’d ever set foot in it. When I was an MA student at NCAD some years ago, long before I thought of pursuing a path in jewellery, I volunteered to archive material for the National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL). It largely consisted of photographs and negatives documenting the heyday of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW), a 1960s-80s initiative started by the Irish Exports Board which dragged Irish design, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. My archival work largely focused on images of the people involved in the KDW and the buildings, which were saved from dereliction specifically to house their workshops. I helped organise, label and pack photographs of Irish and international designers, resplendent in their flares and sideburns, working in the very building where I am now making jewellery.

The story of the KDW is a fascinating one and isn’t as widely known as it should be. A group of Scandinavian design experts were invited to Ireland in the 1960s to assess the state of our craft and design industry and subsequently produced the damning Scandinavian report Design in Ireland (1961) which detailed how underwhelming a lot of Irish design was at that time and what could be done to improve it. The report was 55 pages long but can be summed up as follows: don’t put shamrocks and harps on everything, Celtic animal symbols belongs in the Book of Kells not on an ashtray, keep making tweed and knitting because we’re actually good at that, and don’t look to weak examples of English design for inspiration. The consequences of the KDWs creativity in response to the report were massive and continue to reverberate through Irish design to this day. A wonderful book about the KDW, Designing Ireland, is available to read free online, which actually contains the original Scandinavian report. Yes, we still find shamrocks, harps and Celtic animals plastered on lots of churned out tat these days, but it’s mostly made in China now and satisfies a particular tourist souvenir market. The good quality items from Ireland, handcrafted by artisans with the finest materials, are on a different level entirely and generally devoid of the aforementioned, overused symbols of Irishness. We can thank KDW for that. And we can thank NIVAL for maintaining the KDW archive. It’s well worth a look.

Another coincidence in my move to Kilkenny is that my old art college friend Louise now works here. Having previously worked as a tattoo artist in Waterford, she just started working in her brother Ian’s place, High Society Tattoo Studio in Kilkenny this year. As well as being a hugely talented inker of skin, Louise is a watercolour artist and also the curator of the Waterford Walls Street Art festival. She’s some woman for one woman!

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Louise with some of her watercolours.

I go to the tattoo studio sometimes after college to soak up the tunes and have a bit of banter with Lou, Ian, Nora, Aoife and Dan. I don’t have any tattoos myself but I’m thinking of getting the words ‘toe tattoo’ done on my big toe, and the words ‘toe tattoo too’ done on my other big toe. I was so lucky to have Louise and her family here as it’s really difficult to find accommodation in Kilkenny. I stayed with Lou and Dot for the first five weeks of my course and was made to feel so at home that I’m practically a Flynn now. Luckily I managed to get myself sorted with a place in Kilkenny in the end, but I would have been completely lost without their hospitality. I still visit the Flynn household from time to time just to remind Dot that I’m her favourite jewellery-making stray.

Dot’s lovely garden in the autumnal morning light.

So what am I doing in this prestigious place where Irish design history was made? With the supervision of Eimear and Marie I am unlearning bad habits and working my hand, arm and back muscles like never before. I cut and file sheets and bars of metal every day, repeating the designated pattern until it’s correct, and then moving on to the next seemingly impossible one. Everything hurts! I keep thinking about the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi’s training regimen. We have a running joke in class that our mistreated hands now want to live separate lives from us. They go to bed early with hot water bottles, abandon us to go to the pub and unwind, get up early and go for relaxing walks. As well as accumulating muscle aches we inflict a lot of minor injuries on ourselves. Saw blades, gravers, and metal burrs have embedded themselves in our hands, while metal files wear away the skin on our fingers. Apparently the pain will get better when our callouses develop, so we are all looking forward to that glamorous development.

I’m not really complaining though. We’re at the end of our first semester and have had expert guidance on a range of techniques from our in-house tutors, in addition to visiting tutors covering metal patination, stone-setting and engraving. We’ve made wheel-thrown ceramic pots in Thomastown with the help of our counterparts on the DCCOI ceramics course there. We’ve attended the MakeShift conference at the Helix and the Gifted Contemporary Craft and Design Fair in the RDS, Dublin. We’re learning a lot from each other too, gaining knowledge from our varied backgrounds. And we’re having loads of fun alongside all the hard work. The in-jokes are too numerous and jewellery-centred to relay. You kinda have to be here, aching, stressing and laughing along with us! As we spend most of our days indoors working hard, we have adopted a tiny spider in the studio to keep us linked to the natural world, but he is so bad at building webs that we have to find flies with our soldering tweezers and deposit them in the flimsy traps he spins. Hopefully his skills will improve with ours.

One final coincidence before I sign off. Our communal block of break-time butter just happened to take on the shape of the pattern in one of our filing exercises. Clearly the training we are receiving has sunk in to our subconscious minds and is coming to the fore whenever our hands touch anything malleable. Mr. Miyagi would be proud.

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Communal block of break-time butter.
Brass bar filed into curves
Brass bar filing exercise.
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