ART: A colourful countdown to Christmas

As we hurtle into December and the countdown to Christmas begins, we meet two very different designer-makers from the Oxfordshire Craft Guild who are presenting a treasure trove of unique gift ideas at the Museum of Oxfordshire in Woodstock this month.

Jeweller Sara Withers has been getting ready for Christmas by making beaded necklaces from coloured polymer clay and the rather different trademark ‘magpie’ necklaces that use buttons and more unusual pieces, often cogs and faces from watches. Encapsulated in resin, with silver sparkle and colour to catch the eye, these offer a stylish countdown to Christmas!

‘I have a friend who is an avid old watch collector’ Sara explains, ‘ and he mends and restores the ones he can but the ones he can’t get running again or the bits he can’t use come to me.  They’re really beautiful. The inside of a watch is amazing – there’s so much careful work and precision in the creation of each original watch and the mechanism is so compact. I love using the leftover bits, often set them into resin, to give new life to these delicate and intricate parts. They’re quirky too, with a quiet elegance yet a touch of steam-punk which makes them fun. The very first necklace I made using watch bits was as a present to mark a 40th birthday– there’s something so symbolic about a clock face as it shows the passing of time. Recently I’ve made some delicate dark red and gold beads to include in magpie necklaces alongside some miniature cogs and they capture the festive colours of mulled wine and candle flames as well as the countdown to Christmas!’

Sara also work with polymer clay creating pieces that are simple and refined. They are often primarily grey, dark blue or black to with bold accents that add a bright contrast. ‘Grey’s a very versatile colour,’ she smiles. ‘People sometimes think it is dull or cold but it isn’t! It can actually be warm, with hints of pink, orange or brown, and it is lovely against green for example. It’s also very wearable. I add touches of colours that really lift a darker shade – like the red berries on holly – and add life and style.’

‘I choose colours from my surroundings,’ she continues, ‘so earlier this year I made a series in different tones of blues which reflected the sky during that wonderfully long period of sunshine and the sea in summertime. I was also inspired by an exhibition of Lucienne Day textiles designs from the 1950s and then found I was working with olive green and acid yellow, and I used orange too for the first time in a long while. I’m lucky enough to teach occasional jewellery-making courses on cruise liners heading to interesting places, and the environment and cultures I find there influence the colours I choose to use too. I’m going to St Petersberg next where there’ll be elaborate buildings with golden tops and amber shades, although I try not to think too hard about what to expect. I’ve found that I absorb the new colour combinations of new places better if I just wait and see, and then they’ll come out through my jewellery.’

For many of us, the festivities really begin with the wrapping of presents, each awkward shape a mini-sculpture of colourful paper and glistening ribbons under the Christmas tree on completion. Our talent at paper craft probably stops with seasonal paper chains, but one Oxfordshire Craft Guild member cuts and bends paper into extraordinary wall art that’s well worth seeking out.

Graham Lester is a sculptor, creating wonders from pre-loved paper with a passion that he first discovered as a boy. ‘I started making small paper sculptures as a child,’ he explains. ‘My father was a book binder so growing up there was paper everywhere and I would make Christmas decorations and I remember one year making all the characters from the nativity. I studied fine art and graphic design at college and enjoyed painting and sculpture but I was always drawn back to paper.’

For many years Graham ran a design agency and didn’t have time to create in this way and so he is delighted to have returned to paper sculpture since retiring: his years as a designer are clear in his pieces which give modern graphic-design a 3D twist in white frames as crisp as snow.

Graham is particularly inspired by the graphic style of retro icons like the Campbell’s soup tin and 1930s travel posters and this is clear in the pieces on show, including a picture of a cruise ship called New York which sails prow-first from the wall in defiantly strong colours that bely the delicacy of the paper used to create it.  And as one of his favourite places is Bridport and the Jurassic coast it is no surprise that many of his sculptural pictures show colourful sailing boats on a deep blue sea, red and white lighthouses, and the ice-lollies and ice-creams that are also synonymous with a traditional day out at the seaside. It’s a pleasure to step into the exhibition from a brisk December day and be whisked momentarily into memories of summer.

Graham  also make unusual stylish bowls and pots from paper using out-of-date glossy reference books like atlases or encyclopaedias, on cookery, gardening and other interests, which have now been out-dated by the internet. ‘The paper is good quality and colourful and so I get pleasure upcycling these much-loved books to give them a new life and new purpose,’ he smiles.  Graham also makes upcycled bowls laminating various materials including as plywood, old signs and acrylic sheets to create a block which he then turns on a lathe into smooth and colourful striped vessels.

And, in these clean-lined bowls that have an almost-Scandinavian precision simplicity, Graham’s colour choices vary, although they’re reliably vibrant and striking, and for Christmas expect some with red and green and a golden yellow alongside surprising new designs using circuit boards that shimmer teal with a hint of silver. Add holly and mixed nuts and you’re ready to party!

First published in OX Magazine December 2018

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