British Competition Celebrates the Role of Crafts

A deteriorating fountain made of clay wins a craft prize newly created by the BBC, the Crafts Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

LONDON — A detailed fountain that recalls the rococo abundance of 17th century Dutch flower paintings is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum here. Inspired by a restored 18th century Meissen fountain, also at the museum, the creation’s oversized tangle of stems and assorted blooms took its artist, Phoebe Cummings, five weeks to create.

The sculpture, “Triumph of the Immaterial,” was not made for permanent display however. Created in raw clay, it has been drying and when the fountain water is turned on for one minute each day, the flowers in the path of the flow have deteriorated.

A reflection on the passing of time, the piece also challenges expectations about crafts — and recently won the first “Woman’s Hour” Craft Prize for Ms. Cummings, 36. The award of 10,000 pounds, about $13,000, was announced last month, the result of a collaboration by three British institutions: the daily BBC Radio 4 show “Woman’s Hour,” the Crafts Council and the museum.

Producers of “Woman’s Hour,” which has 3.7 million weekly listeners (almost half of whom, the show’s producers say, are male) and 1.3 million monthly podcast listeners, came up with the idea as part of its 70th anniversary celebrations in 2016, following a lively audience response to an earlier episode on crafts.

“It seemed a good idea to bring together something that the audience was interested in, and something that we’ve covered throughout our years on air, in one moment,” said Karen Dalziel, a “Woman’s Hour” producer. The competition was announced as an effort to find “the most innovative and exciting craft practitioner or designer-maker living in the U.K. today.”

The initial 1,500 entrants were narrowed to 12 finalists from fields such as ceramics, sculpture, jewelry and furniture. Five finalist judges, including Rosy Greenlees, the executive director at the Crafts Council, and Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director and a former Member of Parliament, selected Ms. Cummings as the winner, announcing their choice Nov. 8 during a live broadcast of “Woman’s Hour” from the museum.

It took place in an auditorium just steps away from a gallery where the finalists’ work are on display until Feb. 5; the exhibition then will tour museums and venues around Britain, beginning with Norwich, Hampshire and Bristol.

Ms. Greenlees said the competition — and the accompanying radio coverage — provided a rare opportunity to encourage people to think about the role of crafts and craft practitioners today. “The response has been phenomenal,” she said. “You can’t underestimate that type of reach to a broader public.”

Despite the public’s interest in learning new skills and in buying handmade goods in stores and on sites like Etsy, crafts are threatened, Ms. Greenlees said, by the government’s emphasis in education on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Those are really important but it should not be at the expense of the arts,” she said.

There also is a larger issue, she said: If British children are no longer being taught basic fine motor-related craft and design skills in school, they will be ill-equipped for careers in many fields, including medicine and technology, that may, at least on the surface, appear unrelated. For example, Ms. Greenlees said, doctors have complained to her that medical students now lack sufficient skill to stitch wounds.

Mr. Hunt referred to video game design, which the museum has announced will be the subject of a major exhibition in September 2018. Its creators, he said, are part of the craft narrative, and will play a central role in an industry that will depend on advances in artificial intelligence and technological design.

In terms of their cultural status and perceived financial values, crafts often are pigeonholed as fine art’s poor relations — conjuring up for some observers images of utilitarian objects or hobbies involving felt or colored paper. For others, like Caren Hartley, 34, the founder of the bespoke bike maker Hartley Cycles and a prize finalist, crafts’ in-between position is what “makes it really exciting,” she said.

The former jeweler and metalwork sculptor turned her passion for cycling into a business in 2009. Today, as one of the few female frame makers in Britain, she said she draws satisfaction from creating something functional for a specific customer.

“It was the ideal combination of my skills,” she said. “I like interacting with people, I like problem-solving and I like making things.”

For others, the application of their craft skills leans more toward the conceptual approach traditionally associated with fine art works.

For Ms. Cummings, whose raw clay sculptures last only as long as the exhibitions for which they are created, her work follows an age-old tradition. “The desire for something else beyond utilitarian objects has been there since the earliest civilizations,” she said, “whether it serves a spiritual or a decorative purpose.”

Her approach was borne out of necessity. Although she worked full time as an art and design technician at a high school in London to pay off a student loan, the Royal College of Art graduate declared bankruptcy in 2006 and moved back to her parents’ home in Staffordshire.

With no money and only some raw clay, she started creating temporary site-specific pieces and reusing the clay afterward. “I didn’t need a studio. I didn’t need a kiln. It was a case of stripping back,” she said.

Of the winning design, Ms. Dalziel of “Woman’s Hour” said, “It’s a piece that is forever changing.

“What resonates about Phoebe’s work is taking something very traditional and recognizable as craft but doing something innovative and slightly irreverent,” she said. “The process of making and remaking is all part of her work, and for me it chimes with the way we’re thinking about our planet. We’re no longer just throwing things away but reusing them.”

At a broader level, Ms. Dalziel said, the competition has confirmed crafts’ relevance throughout women’s lives, whether it be on a traditional, domestic scale or as part of wider culture, like the sea of handmade pink hats worn at the Women’s Marches in January in Washington and other cities around the world. (Notably, however, two of the competition finalists were men.)

“Craft is often dismissed as women’s work,” Ms. Dalziel said, “and we wanted to raise its profile and celebrate its relevance, its innovation and the exceptional quality of making.”