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For October’s Maker in Focus interview, we spoke to the multidisciplinary maker Simone Brewster about her creative journey through the mediums of Architecture, Product Design, and Jewellery, about finding her voice as a craftsperson, and how her four cultural heroes have affected her outlook and practice.
Simone was part of a panel of makers discussing ‘Diversity in Craft’, for the Design Museum and Loewe Foundation’s talk series Craft Conversations during LCW 2018. Silversmith Ndidi Ekubia and Gallerist and porcelain manufacturer Peter Ting were also part of the conversation, which was chaired by the Crafts Council’s Director Rosy Greenlees.
Image by Simone Brewster
LCW: What is your background?
SB: My background is pretty diverse and may be a key indicator in why my work touches on many subjects. Educationally, I began in architecture. I was quite young when I went off to study at the Bartlett, but I think it was an amazingly grounding preparation for a professional life and the realities of the creative world. I didn’t have as much fun as I would have liked though, so I did a Masters at the Royal College of Art, which would give me a hands-on opportunity to continue my growing passion for making and materials. During my time there I would always sneak off to other departments.
I remember having tutorials with people in the jewellery department and the guys in vehicle design teaching me how to sculpt and mould. It started a love affair with design and creation that hasn’t really stopped. However, my educational background is only one aspect. I am also a born and bred Londoner, with Caribbean heritage. I’ve grown up with a rich and diverse cultural exposure and cross-culture appreciation that has been a constant source of personal inspiration.
LCW: What drew you to create such a variety of work, spanning both discipline and materials?
SB: My work is an expression of myself and my curiosity. I think there’s an obsession with creative disciplines, which can actually be limiting to the artist. When I started making work, I considered it a form of play and a conversation with my surrounding world. I let my awareness and natural interest be my rudder through a journey of expression leading me through from architecture, product design and across to jewellery.
I did not feel inhibited manifesting my ideas regardless of discipline. This meant that making furniture and making jewellery was equally as inspiring and interesting to me. Any creative process is a personal journey and the cross-disciplinary work I produce, is one that many creatives probably don’t feel the pull to explore, otherwise I believe you would see it more frequently. On the other hand, I would say that for me the idea of receiving a “title” is a daunting prospect. Our societal habit of labelling can close as many doors as it opens and maybe this has something to do with why I continue to walk down different creative avenues.
LCW: How have you developed your career? Was there a pivotal moment that drew you to craft?
SB: I’ve always thought of my career as an organic weird shaped thing that grows in unexpected ways with many off-shoots. Craft is just one of those branches. I really didn’t have a master plan when I started working.
I actually never wanted to be an independent creative. I always just wanted a simple job that would make me happy. What happened was my work was louder than my intentions, the work had a larger voice, which called people to ask for me to make more work and so it began.
I ended up making work as evidence of my skills, my creative approach and my capacity to think. I still feel like it’s a very tenuous thread.
My creative voice has been called unique (though I personally veer away from that word), though many people have talent. Finding your path to a career is very different from finding your voice as a creative. It’s the difference between being able to spell and being able to write and then being able to reach your audience with your books. I’m still figuring out how to reach my audience and I’m still training my voice, so I think this strand of my career is still in its early stages.
Image by Kevin C Moore
LCW: Take us through your typical day…
SB: It’s quite straightforward really. I wake up at around 5.30am. I eat something light and basic. I go to work, I come home. I have a tiny studio space that I’m actually neglecting. I’m learning how to stone carve. I am in what could be called a ‘pupal’ phase. I’m changing and rebuilding on the inside, asking different questions about the work I make, where it sits and the intention I have with it. I’m also spending a lot of time on paper. In a strange way, I began on paper, even prior to the architecture I drew. It’s actually what brought me to that field. Now I spend time on paper far more than in the past, before moving on to three-dimensional forms and I spend time in the digital phase too.
Each stage has a place and a limitation, but the older I get, I find that I need balance to keep me from burning out and to maintain some level of perspective on life. For this, I spend my evenings climbing, which is one of the best forms of active meditation I’ve found to date.
LCW: Where do you draw inspiration from in the creation of your work?
SB: Inspiration is play. I think of my mind like a Michelin chef’s kitchen cabinet. I want to collect as many different ingredients and exotic recipes as possible. Then when I’m ready I’ll put them in a pot and play with them.
Being inspired is truly the easiest part of being a creative and in some ways we weigh too much on this. I am from London. I am surrounded by history and culture. I’m from the Caribbean and from England, where there is such a rich visual and creative culture. It’s easy to be inspired by walking in nature, listening to music let alone the obvious ones we are taught, going to museums, looking at the work of others.
The real question is what do you do when you’re not inspired? How do you keep going when it’s hard or when you don’t have the funds, or you can’t see the rainbow through the current storm you are passing through? I think that resilience and consistency are far more important ingredients than inspiration. It’s actually these ingredients that will carry you through to the next level of your creativity and your career.
LCW: What role does craft and making have in society?
SB: So much of historical culture has grown out of our relationship to our surroundings and how we transform those natural materials into objects of enjoyment. Wood to bowls, metal to tools and adornment. I think there’s something very instinctual about craft and as we move into a more digitised age, craft can play a great role in reminding us of the tactile and personal, the real and the quiet. It can remind us of our ability to transform ourselves and hone our focus and our minds through the act of making, designing and creating. It is not immediate. It is cumulative. It is constant. It repays those who have the vision to commit to a path. I think that society is waking up to this more and more and appreciating this, which is why we see the rise of “craft” beer and the success of Bake Off on TV. We are realising that regardless of what we make with our hands, the act of making with skill or the desire to hone skill is important and worthy of the word craft. Through the act of craft we forge our minds.
Image by Luke Andrew Walker
LCW: How long does it take for someone to really build confidence in their craft?
SB: I think that’s a personal question and it really depends on what people aim to achieve with the act of making. For me, it’s an exploration far more than a desire to be the best, which is why I suppose I feel free to explore different disciplines. However, I do feel that I liberate myself from that pressure by coming from a design background. Ideas are paramount to me.
Maybe that’s the answer to the question, I have far more confidence in my ideas than my ability to make. For me, this isn’t a problem. I am happy to work with other makers and learn from them when I can. The idea comes first.
LCW: Life on a deserted island or life without dessert?
SB: My sisters make amazing cakes, so I guess life without dessert would mean life without my sisters, which would be much like living on a deserted island, so I guess I’m at a stalemate.
LCW: What are the positives/negatives about being a craftsperson?
SB: The positive about being a craftsperson is that you develop a relationship with a form of self-expression that’s personal. Often you also take on part of a heritage and lineage that has existed and developed through the evolution of our societies.
The negatives of this journey are, that those outside of the craft world don’t actually understand the time and skill, which goes into making…anything. Dedicating yourself to making things is not just the cost of the workshop, the materials and the tools. It’s the endless hours you go into “skilling” yourself. Into making the perfect joint, the seamless solder, the clean weld. It’s learning how to predict a material, how to bring forth the best in the material and ourselves.
Craftspeople are so regularly undermined. After spending years acquiring the skills and tools, renting spaces in cities and towns, we often get asked why our work is so expensive. People forget the time that goes into making, the cost of materials and the personal investment. When we live in a world where you can buy cheap products imported from other parts of the world, the product of cheap or underpaid labour, the question of value and where we place ours as individuals and as a society comes into play. We begin to see that we have so much more to learn about the reality that goes into making all of our possessions.
Image by Kevin C Moore
LCW: Do you have someone that you idolize? Craftsperson or otherwise.
SB: Idolize is a heavy word. I think it moves people away from the realm of reality and that’s not healthy. However, in a recent exercise, I was doing with Patricia Van Den Akker from The Design Trust, I was asked to identify four heroes I looked up to and identify the qualities which drew me to them. The list I came up with made me rethink the dialogue of my practice. The four names that I chose were Louise Bourgeois, Jamie Hayon, Chris Ofili and Akala.
Bourgeois represented longevity and career. This woman worked a lifetime, most of which without recognition, but kept going because of her passion. When people think about careers they don’t often think about one spanning till the age of 99.
I greatly admire Hayon’s creative expression, design quality and confidence to bring forth a personal vision. I also love that as a designer he focuses on working with dying craft industries in Spain. His projects aim to rethink and revive craft through design. A job we are now constantly being faced with to keep craft industries alive.
Chris Ofili represented purpose. After reading his opinion on why to make work and him saying "When I left the Royal College, I decided I would only make paintings that I would want to look at myself, that felt close to my life." I too went to The Royal College and on reflection, felt my work was not speaking with a unique voice yet. I decided to try and bring forth work that I believe has a new flavour or perspective. But to do that you need courage - which brings me to the final name Akala.
For me, Akala represented integrity and courage. I admire his ability to articulate his position. I appreciate his ability to craft knowledge and use it to empower and educate others. I want my work to speak to others and empower them. I want my work to give voice to other concepts of beauty and value. I want my work to have integrity. I want it to represent craft and I intend to have a career that spans until 99.
LCW: What is Craft to you? What does it represent?
SB: Craft is the vessel through which I carry my ideas and my perspective into the world and share it with people. On a less philosophical angle, it’s fun. I believe everyone should make something and that craft and the potential and value of craft, the desire to skillfully make, is only just being understood in our society.