Laura Manners

Play. Explore. Make.

23rd November 2018

It’s time for the three new participants in the Heath Robinson Museum’s Maker’s Art project to take centre stage. Jill Glenn meets them.

In May and in November Pinner’s Heath Robinson Museum Shop stocks its display cases afresh with work from a new cohort of local(ish) artist-makers, invited to showcase and sell their pieces for six months. They’re selected by curator Jeannine Lawder, who loves to work closely with contemporary craftspeople and to expose their creative output.

‘We have something for body, mind and soul here today,’ she says at the launch of the most recent collection, the fifth in the series. For the body, weaver Ann Brooks provides beautiful scarves in silk and other natural fibres; for the mind, there are what Jeannine calls ‘mentally uplifting ceramics’ from Laura Manners; for the soul, there are decorative, intricate silver pieces created by jeweller Rashmi Murray.

Jeannine’s passion for the making shines out as she introduces the new group of artisans. For her, I think, it is as much about the process – ‘What they do is… they play. They play and they explore and they make’ – as it is about the result; it’s about giving oneself up creatively.

All three have come to their lives as artist-makers via curious and unconventional routes, but that gives a freshness to their approach that is, in all instances, very beguiling.

Ann Brooks, who grew up in Watford and is now based in Chesham Bois, first saw looms when she was living in the north of Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, in the 1960s. She was fascinated by them, but the opportunity to explore the art of weaving did not come until she was back in the UK, when she took lessons in Amersham. Family life and work – ‘secretarial’, she shrugs – intervened; the loom went in the loft, and for a hobby she took up basket-making. She even acquired a City & Guilds in the subject. She was both enthusiastic and prolific –but eventually, her daughter observed ‘we’ve got enough baskets’ now, and Ann could only agree.

She dusted off the loom, took some more lessons, sold a couple of scarves at an exhibition, and the die was cast for a new career. She joined the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, and is still involved with them. She makes mainly scarves, but also cot blankets, to commission.

It’s all the colour possibilities that motivate her; ‘I like playing with colour,’ she says. ‘You’re never sure what will turn out’. She takes inspiration from textiles in museums, and also from the shades she sees when walking her dogs through woodland. And she works only in natural fibres – silks, linens, fine wools, cashmere; no synthetics on principle. After all, she explains, ‘with the amount of work that goes in, you want to use the best material…’

Like Ann, jeweller Rashmi Murray takes inspiration from the natural world. She’s passionate about organic forms, and her rhythmical pieces are often enhanced with precious and semi-precious stones, reflecting her particular love of flower colours. ‘I try to include moving parts wherever possible,’ she says, showing me delicate pieces like the earrings on the previous page, where each element swings independently. She also enjoys using pieces of antique lace, which she can impress on to the silver through a rolling mill. It’s a way of creating really personal pieces of jewellery, using heritage lace, for example, with all its sentimental value.

Rashmi describes herself as ‘quite young in silversmithing terms’; she studies one day a week at City Lit, London, and is still experimenting with different techniques, developing her skills at home, in Hatch End, as well as at college. It’s a far cry from her former career in commercial property management, from which she was made redundant four years ago. ‘I was so bored,’ she tells me. Silverwork, and ‘the challenge of making the metal do what you want’ saved her. All her pieces are one-offs; she can make it again, to the same vision, but the end result will never be quite the same.

Challenge and experimentation are at the heart of Laura Manners’s ceramics practice, too. Her inspirations lie in the industrial landscapes of her rural Nottingham childhood (she now lives in Aylesbury) and she produces earthenware pieces that are decorated in a vibrant colour palette. She exhibits nationally at ceramics fairs, including Art in Clay at both Hatfield and Farnham.

For a long time she has concentrated on the functionality; now illustrative style is driving her forward. Until recently she has been drawing the design on; now she is using print techniques with clay, and enjoying being out of her comfort zone. ‘It’s exciting and scary,’ she says, as she explains the complexities of knowing when something’s perfect, if perfect isn’t actually what you’re aiming for. It sounds tense, but she’s smiling, lit up with enthusiasm as she talks, so I think she likes it really.

Laura was a creative child; she relishes the traditional craft skills she had the opportunity to inherit – knitting, crochet, sewing, painting, drawing – and unlike Ann and Rashmi, who first earned their livings in commercial arenas, her work has always been hands-on. After GSCEs, she trained as a piano tuner/restorer, and also did French polishing for a clock restorer. Then she completed an Art Foundation Course, and went on to study at Bucks New University in High Wycombe. There she fell in love with ceramics, and it has been her constant companion ever since. ‘I do what I need to do to get by,’ she says, ‘but what I am is a ceramicist.’

In addition to her own self-generated work, Laura also accepts commissions, in which she uses precious photographs provided by the client and captures – ‘I don’t recreate,’ she stresses – the atmosphere they evoke. It’s about distilling what’s there, and it’s always an edgy experience. Memory is important to her in her own work; but trying to pin down someone else’s interpretation is even more complicated. No-one, apparently, has ever disliked the result although some people have been surprised at her choice of focus…

And that’s the whole point, really, for all of these practitioners. It’s about going into their creative selves to produce something imaginative, honest, powerful and unexpected: a different choice of focus.

Jeannine Lawder is already looking for a new selection of artist-makers for the spring to autumn 2019 slot.
If you are a local practitioner and are interested in learning more, contact her via the Heath Robinson Museum.

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