The art of craft... artists putting Ireland on the map

We meet four creative forces who are helping to put Irish craft work centre stage

Award-winning glass artists Bianca Divito. Photo: Joe Keogh Photography

Orla Neligan

If the sight of stained glass makes you think of church on Sundays, think again. If woodwork brings to mind orange varnish and wonky tables, you haven't been paying attention.

If pottery conjures up images of lopsided jugs, take note: today's craft workers may well be versed in traditional methods but their creations come with a contemporary twist - materials and shapes that challenge the old-fashioned and bring new life and character to the art world.

Ireland has a vibrant crafts community, encompassing a wide range of beautiful homegrown products from woodwork and pottery to knitwear, jewellery, soaps, candles and glassware.

This year's National Crafts and Design Fair, running from December 2-6 at Dublin's RDS, will showcase the talents of more than 500 such designers, artists and craftspeople. It also happens to be a good way to tick those Christmas presents off your list. Here we meet four of its most exciting artists…

Bianca Divito

When award-winning glass artist Bianca Divito (35) isn't painstakingly conserving the intricate glass windows of St Patrick's Cathedral, she is creating hanging glass sculptures and art pieces inspired by nature and light, some of which have even found their way into husband Damien Keane's garden designs at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

As a child Bianca Divito spent hours watching and helping her father - a self-taught glass blower - with his work. "It was always in my blood," she confesses. After completing a Fine Art degree she went on to do a BA Hons in Architectural Glass at Swansea. She then worked with some of Europe's top stained-glass studios, earning herself no less than nine awards in her nine-year career, and remains one of the few female glass artists in Ireland.

Her crystal 'Layla Boo' pendants have even found their way into the homes of David Essex and Danny Devito. "My work is so varied, from decorative windows to bespoke lamps, wall hangings and smaller items such as hearts and flowers." Prices vary from €65 for the pendants, with bespoke work higher. Her favourite piece is her best-selling outdoor pendant, the 'Evie Flower'. "It is made with light reflective crystals so creates the most wonderful array of prisms in sunlight. It's also named after my friend's daughter so it's extra special to me." Divito's technique is intricate and involves engraving, blowing, sandblasting, etching, painting and leading. "I like to create using time-honoured techniques but also to innovate with them using new and interesting materials."

Her use of crystals and semi-precious stones has become her signature along with gold foil techniques perfected by world-renowned jeweller Tiffany. "I don't like the look of flat glass, it's too one-dimensional." Despite it being delicate work, she has never dropped a piece. "I'm very careful - plus, I need the money," she laughs. She admits there is nothing more creatively draining than worrying about finances but she makes a modest living and is the master of her own studio, a 1930s old school house in Coolgreaney. "There is a certain romanticism about being an artist but not having a steady income can be difficult. On the plus side, I'm doing what I love every day with nobody to answer to."

John Dunn

Former architect and carpenter John Dunn (44) lives in Wexford with his Japanese partner Mayumi and two-year-old son Akira, where he creates mechanical sculptures from his garden studio.

Animation provides the backbone to John Dunn's automated sculptures, which riff on everything from maritime landscapes with moving birds and boats to children's toys. "My work is playful," explains Dunn, "there's something magical about the combination of movement and sound. Maybe I'm just a kid at heart," he laughs.

He says that a huge percentage of his clients are grandparents who buy his 'moving sculptures' both for themselves and their grandchildren. While he enjoys the solitary nature of his work, it can be lonely. At the same time, 'networking' doesn't always come naturally. "Selling yourself can be tricky. It's wonderful to think the work could speak for itself but you have to be good at self promotion."

John's technique is loose, involving scattering pieces of wood on his studio floor to assemble like a jigsaw. Although 20 years since he practiced as an architect and four since he moved from carpenter to artist, his experience plays a seminal role in how he builds his art. "Sometimes it takes days to piece together a composition and other times, it simply falls into place. But the skills I learnt as a carpenter and as an architect are used in every piece I make." The toys (€100) can be built in a day while it could take anything from one to three weeks to build a larger art piece (€1,800).

One of the most important steps is finding the right piece of wood. "I work mostly with driftwood and spend a lot of time by the sea on hunting expeditions." John's hunts have become so well known in Wexford that locals regularly drop driftwood at his door. And he's gone further afield, too.

"I was in Japan recently visiting my partner's family and we went to a hot springs where I discovered this huge piece of driftwood. I was trying to explain to my partner's dad how amazing it was and that I could create something beautiful with it. He was scratching his head in confusion. The next day he presented me with the piece of wood, expertly wrapped. I carried it all the way home and it is now the backdrop to one of my favourite maritime seascapes."

Grainne Watts

Ceramicist Grainne Watts (55) has been creating stoneware and porcelain for over 30 years. She works from her studio in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Her work is available to purchase from a range of galleries around Ireland including Millcove Gallery, Co Cork and Kenmare, Armore Pottery, Co Waterford and The Blue Egg Gallery, Co Wexford.

"My first introduction to clay was at the age of 10 when I was 'commissioned' to make a set of Wombles for a family friend," laughs Grainne Watts. They were obviously pretty good since she went on to study graphics, illustration and ceramics at NCAD and earned herself a string of accolades in the years that followed. With distinction has come travel, special commissions, exhibitions and workshops but it does not change the fact that being an artist in Ireland is challenging. "The market is so small here, galleries work on a sale or return basis and can take months to pay." But she gets enormous satisfaction from her work, despite the unreliable income. Her one-off pieces, ranging from €50-€1,000, can take anything from three to six weeks to make.

"The 'Beast' started life as the knob on a lidded form and over the years has grown into a series of brightly coloured creatures, each with their own personality. They are now my best-seller." Her 'creatures' all have a strong graphic quality, inspired by a love of animated films, watched with her three sons Sam, Adam and Nick when they were young. "They're all grown up now but still have their illustrated mugs and bowls." Nowadays it's holidays on the Connemara coastline photographing and collecting rocks, seaweeds, stones and shells that inspires her work. She also admits to her studio shelves being 'jammed' with books on illustrations, body art, graffiti, the natural world, ethnic art… the list goes on. "Working with clay has its challenges - long hours, inconsistent work and constant pressure - but I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to make beautiful things that will hopefully enhance someone else's home and life."

Marie-Therese Walker

When she is not making commission pieces, goldsmith Marie-Therese Walker (34) creates unique jewellery, which is available for sale from her workshop in Kilkenny.

"I've always been a 'maker'," says goldsmith Marie-Therese Walker who got her first job when she was 13 at the Pine Forest Craft Centre in Glencullen and went on to specialise in metals at NCAD. She admits most people are intrigued by her vocation but not in Kilkenny. "Goldsmiths are 10-a-penny here," she laughs. "People usually ask me about Lord of the Rings and whether I make rings with the same technique used by the Dark Lord."

In reality, it's much less dramatic but satisfying all the same. "I love that I start out with a 6x6mm square bar and end up with something unique and beautiful." On the flipside, being her own boss means she's also maker, designer, buyer, marketer, seller and accountant, which can be all-consuming. Walker is the only goldsmith in Ireland to use Fair Trade Gold. Her striking jewellery is also made with precious metals and gemstones, with pieces starting from €35 for sterling silver earrings to €900 for larger items using semi-precious stones. "The great thing is the client chooses the budget and I source stones and design the piece around that price."

Her inspiration is "continuously in a state of flux" and depends on what she's doing at the time - yoga, dancing, art history. Sadly, she was recently the victim of a robbery at her workshop. "It was the hardest point of my career, most of my stock was taken. A friend suggested I look at it as a fresh start, which I didn't appreciate at the time. But she was right. I'm excited about the work I've been doing over the last few months; it's fresh, new and organic. I'm looking forward to displaying it at the Craft Fair."