Welcome to workshop wonderland
From printing to pottery, craft has never been cooler. Here we meet some of the talented Irish makers who have opened their studios to the public.
With so many of us spending more and more of our days submerged in a fast-paced digital world, it's no surprise that we have begun looking for ways to disconnect, if only for an afternoon. The popularity of workshops in traditional skills like pottery, screen printing and jewellery making is on the rise and dovetails nicely with an increased appreciation of Irish craft items. Handmade Irish products have never been cooler and as our love for sustainable, indigenous craftsmanship has grown, so too has an interest in how these pieces are made.
Fittingly for a studio called Petal, Abigail Bell's classes are all about florals. The Belfast-based artist runs workshops from her beautiful studio, set in a former linen mill, which are centred on helping students connect with nature. "It's a bit of a floral haven," she admits. "People come and feel this creative buzz."
As well as running watercolour painting workshops, Abigail does immersive day classes, costing around €44, that are themed by the seasons. In the morning, students work with locally grown flowers to create soft, natural large-scale arrangements. In the afternoon, Abigail teams up with candle company The Bearded Candle Makers to help students work with essential oils that pair with or complement the flowers they've been working with in the morning, to create their own bespoke scented candle. "In the summer, it's things like sweet pea and rose and honeysuckle," explains Abigail. "The scents tend to bring out all of these memories - quite often, people will say, 'It reminds me of my granny's garden,' and things like that."
She notices her workshops attract a similar crowd - people looking to take some time out from hectic schedules and always-on lifestyles. "Slowing down is becoming more and more important," she says. "People who really need to find a mindful respite from their lives and from social media seem to be attracted to the holistic approach of the classes. I'm trying to provide a healing, nurturing environment, because I know the kind of pressures that work causes. You need to have somewhere you can switch off and tune back into nature."
Her 10-week botanical illustration evening classes, from around €180, cover everything from penwork techniques to helping students develop their own modern illustrative style. "Although I believe in a very strong foundation of drawing, it's also about a strong foundation of seeing," explains Abigail. "You need to be able to see in order to draw: it's not just about tracing something. It's drawing from life and observing things." This kind of creative concentration and focus tends to leave students "tired in a good way", fostering a slower, more mindful outlook. "People talk about it as being like a meditation," says Abigail. "It makes them realise how much they need that in their lives - especially women, who are often so busy looking after everybody else's needs, they don't make time for themselves."
The screen printer
"It's really low-fi, and yet it's instant gratification," laughs Kim Willoughby, co-founder of Dublin screen printing studio Damn Fine Print, as she explains the allure of their super-popular workshops, which sell out fast.
Part of their appeal is in the relaxed, messy nature of the screen printing process. "With screen printing, it's all very easy and accessible and you don't need a whole lot of technical ability to do it, compared to something like etching or letterpress," explains Kim. "You don't need to be able to draw, and you can't really mess it up - because if you mess it up, you're only experimenting more, and it's more fun."
Classes and workshops have been an integral part of Damn Fine Print since it opened in 2011. Held in their large, colourful studio in Smithfield, Dublin, the one-day 'taster' workshops, €85, are popular with small groups of friends, as team-building exercises or even alternative hen parties. Students leave with a printed tote bag and T-shirt. "It's hands-on, it's really messy and you come away with something that you've made yourself," says Kim.
The workshops have become increasingly popular with creative agencies and tech companies looking for a mini digital detox. "We pretty much have had them all in the studio - from Facebook and Google to Twitter and Instagram," she says. "To come in and do something that's very hands-on and low-fi is great, particularly for those types of companies, as they're so tech- and screen-based."
The studio's more intensive four-week courses, €220, are also geared towards people with little to no printing experience. "Over the four weeks, we take you from scratch, from learning about how to get an image on a screen, how to print that image, how to use all our equipment, how to wash out your screen and even working with different inks and mixing colours," explains Kim. If you like what you've learned and want to keep experimenting, you can sign up for affordable, pay-as-you-go access, and make use of Damn Fine Print's industrial-grade screen printing equipment, tools and workspace.
For Kim, no two days at the studio are the same. From organising events and courses to partnering with brands, working with artists on commissions, to the general admin of running a busy studio and online store - and, of course, producing beautiful screen prints. Print, at least here, is as popular as ever. "We're at a generation now where some people have never worked in print: it's all digital," Kim notes. "So there's definitely more of an appreciation for a hand-pulled print product."
"The people who come to my workshops are generally a lot like I once was - so busy with life that it's hard to find the time to express themselves creatively," says Galway-based jeweller Grace O'Connell. In 2013, Grace decided that it was time to "re-create her life" and began studying jewellery and metalsmithing, working under local jewellers.
These days, she spends most of her time running private and public jewellery- making workshops, from €40, often in Galway's hip bar Tribeton; Dublin's cute Stoneybatter café Slice and, increasingly, in people's homes. "The private events are my favourite part of running the workshops," she says. "I get to join people in their homes for drinks and lovingly prepared food, and watch generations of families and life-long friends create something meaningful together."
Participants of the workshop learn about the lost art of wax casting and, with guidance and some simple techniques, they design and sculpt their own unique piece out of jeweller's wax, which can then be professionally cast and finished. There's also usually a meal and some bubbles, "to really make a night of it".
"So many people come to thank me for the experience after the class, gushing about how much they enjoyed it and how they could happily spend all day at it," she adds. "They come away from this shared experience with a beautiful, long-lasting reminder of their creative potential."
Grace is currently in the process of launching wedding workshops, where couples can collaborate with her to design and create something special for their big day. "For me, sitting at the workbench to hand-finish rings that represent a couple's commitment to each other is the greatest buzz."
Looking like something that has been airlifted right out of one of Brooklyn's hipper neighbourhoods, the Arran Street East Studio in Dublin's north city centre is a bright and modern space where people come to study the very traditional craft of pottery. "When I'm throwing, my mind turns off a bit - it's very relaxing," says Patrick Glavey, Arran Street East's production manager, who is also part of the team that teach week-long (€275) and one-day (€120) throwing workshops in a bright and sunny upstairs studio space.
Students work with potters like Patrick to learn how to shape the clay before moving behind the wheel themselves - Arran Street East is one of the few places in the city where everyone has their own pottery wheel throughout the class, and students end the day by making a simple pot of their own, which can then be glazed in-house.
As anyone who has watched the 1990 classic Ghost knows, mastering the pottery wheel isn't as easy as it looks. Part of Patrick's job is helping people relax into the process and make peace with the learning curve and inevitable mistakes. "Some people are very hard on themselves and they won't want to save something unless it's perfect," he says. "It looks so simple when you watch it, but it's really not. There's a lot of muscle memory involved, and a rhythm to it. The only way to get better is to practise, and just to experience failing and trying again."
The classes attract a lot of professional nine-to-fivers looking to get away from phones and computers. "I think they want to get working with their hands, doing something creative, something physical," says Patrick. "When you're throwing, it takes all of your focus and you're just with it."
The natural dyer
As well as creating her own line of luxe, naturally dyed Irish linen textiles for the home, textile designer Kathryn Davey runs workshops around Dublin that sell out almost as quickly as she can announce them.
The sessions focus either on simple natural dye techniques or shibori, a Japanese method that typically involves folding, twisting or bunching cloth and binding it, then dyeing it in indigo - a plant-based dye. The result is beautiful, vibrant patterns in vivid blue hues, created in a natural, sustainable way, with no chemicals. "There's an element of alchemy and magic involved in natural dyeing," Kathryn muses. "Especially with indigo dyeing - when you put your fabric into the dye vat and then take it out, it's initially a turquoise-green colour. But as the air hits it and it oxidises, it changes to blue."
Kathryn started teaching the workshops in California in 2014 and kept them up when she returned to Dublin. Her five-hour classes, from €130, start with a brief overview of natural dyeing or shibori methods, and students are elbow-deep in dye within the first hour.
"I really like it to be hands-on, and for people to get stuck in right away," she says. "The whole process is quite meditative: you have to slow down; you can't rush things, so it appeals to people who want to create some space to just be a bit more artistic."
The vast majority of Kathryn's students tend to be women. "It's a really nice way for women to come together, and it's one of the things I love most about them," she says. "Unless you seek it out, we don't really do that anymore - but when you come together with women to create, that has its own magic to it. It's really special."
Words and photography by Nathalie Marquez Courtney