Month-long celebration of art and craftwork that’s made in Ulster

Andrea Spencer and Scott Benefield at Work.
Andrea Spencer and Scott Benefield at Work.

August has just begun, named after the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar - from the Latin ‘augustus’, meaning auspicious or venerable.

The Anglo-Saxons called August ‘weod-monath’ (weed month) and today in the USA it’s National Hair Loss Awareness Month, both extremely relevant to Roamer’s dense dandelions and diminishing hairdo!

More in line with its Latin derivations, August is Craft Month in Northern Ireland - our largest annual celebration of contemporary local craftwork and applied arts.

It’s an opportunity for the public to see and experience everything from dry-stone walling to drum-making, from butter sculpting to creel weaving - there’s ceramics, glassware, basketry, furniture-making, textiles and silver ware - all over Ulster.

Please peruse Craft Northern Ireland’s website at the end of Roamer’s page today, where a vast range of workshops, festivals, exhibitions, open studios, bus tours and talks are scheduled.

Craft NI is encouraging people to “get away from their computer screens and work with their hands!”

There was sad news on Friday’s page about vandals wrecking Belfast-artist Wilhelmina Geddes’s stained-glass window in a church near Liverpool.

In contrast, there’s great news about glass today!

Two of the UK’s top glass artists have opened a new studio on the County Antrim coast, and as part of Craft NI’s packed programme, the public can visit it on August 5.

Husband and wife Scott Benefield and Andrea Spencer design and produce all sorts of artwork and glassware in their new purpose-built studio in Ballintoy.

Andrea, originally from Hertfordshire, moved to Northern Ireland in 1993 after graduating in Architectural Glass from Edinburgh College of Art.

“When I came here 23 years ago there was no glass-working community,” she told Roamer, “but over the last 10 years there’s been more activity.”

She’d been here a few times in the past “and fell in love with the place.”

Husband Scott, born in Japan, was brought up in the US where he has lived in New Orleans and Seattle.

Like Belfast’s Wilhelmina Geddes over six decades ago, Scott is regarded as one of the world’s leading glass artists and has been appointed to chair the jury for this year’s British Glass Biennale at the International Festival of Glass.

Scott and Andrea met at an artist residency in Scotland, fell in love, and Scott moved to Northern Ireland in 2010.

Having relocated to their new base in Ballintoy, they are hoping that the Co Antrim coast will become a magnet for glass artists.

Known as Benefield Spencer Glass, the husband and wife duo travel internationally and regularly visit the US to work, teach and to show and share their skills at exhibitions and at residencies.

Roamer wondered if their intricate glass-ware travels well!

“That’s one of my biggest problems,” smiled Andrea, adding “I’ve had varying degrees of success!”

Some of her commissioned artworks are in healthcare buildings, where she often uses nature as inspiration.

“It’s a very specific audience and nature themes are soothing and calming,” she explained “so I use a lot of references to nature in sculptures and windows. My own gallery-based work is inspired by natural forms and sea forms, collecting objects on the beach,” she added.

Their ‘production line’ is “functional table ware” Andrea told me “designed to be used in the home or kitchen.”

They make jugs, one of their most popular items of glassware, and pouring bowls, in all sorts of patterns, shapes, colours and sizes.

I asked about the basic ingredients used in their intricately beautiful yet completely functional works of art.

“Sand, soda ash and lime,” Scott specified, in a voice slightly muffled by his safety mask.

Everything is heated to melting!

His materials arrive as pellets in a ‘batch’; they’re melted, ‘bench rolled’, ‘kiln squeezed’ and then go through a ‘knock off’ - all will be revealed this Saturday!

Andrea loves Northern Ireland.

“I guess it would be the countryside and the spirit of the people,” she explained, “I’m attracted by the coast,” she added “and people here call it as it is. They are straight talking and great fun.”

“We have told fellow glass artists about Northern Ireland,” the happy couple explained “and they are all keen to come over here.”

Scott’s work is influenced by historical glass, in particular Venetian glass.

All of his work is based on a particular technique known as cane - “a way of working that gets patterns into the glass in a unique way” he explained.

His intriguing techniques are illustrated in short films on their website at www.benefieldspencerglass.com.

Scott has been working on his ancient craft for 30 years, and as well as designing and producing glass, he has been teaching and raising awareness.

“A lot of people are interested in learning it,” he said.

Andrea added “When we moved to Ballintoy here last year we met a lot of new people doing work in our area and as a result I’m going to be doing a show ‘Five Artists in a Byre’ at Cloughmills.”

Their Open Studio Day is this Saturday 5 August from 10am to 4pm - a chance to watch them create beautiful works of hand blown glass, and to see their latest collection of glassware. Full details of all August Craft Month’s events are at augustcraftmonth.com and you can find out more about craftwork in your area at www.craftni.org