North Lands creative

North Lands Creative Interview
Project Lead Partner

1. Please tell us about your organisation and what is your main focus in the ISGNE project?

Our main focus or motivation to initiate ISGNE was to broaden our network and increase our capacity to work at a European level with high-quality insights into the glass sector best practice across Europe, from Ireland to the UK to Germany and to Latvia. European glass is incredibly diverse so developing a co-operation project gave us the opportunity to understand through peer-to-peer learning and group work the importance of safeguarding making and preservation of the craft transnationally. North Lands Creative receive many students and artists from across the world each year and we hoped the project would allow us to broaden our understanding of the issues facing European glass and the barriers artists encounter to be mobilised and support them to continue their creative practice. 

North Lands Creative Glass was established in 1995 as the foremost national centre of excellence in glass making and the only organisation in Scotland committed to the safeguard and protection of Scotland’s glass heritage and is a pioneer in the training of glass technical and curatorial skills. We are a forward-thinking arts organisation and gallery, which uses the arts and creativity to enable social change through our professional, local arts and community programming.

The North Lands Creative Collection includes over 250 glass artworks from contemporary studio glass, from all parts of the British Isles and internationally. In addition to the many completed artworks and objects, the Gallery has a number of smaller trial-pieces of glass, fragments and samples of glass material, many of which derived from work made during artists’ time at North Lands Creative either as a master-class leader or during an artist in residency at our Alastair Pilkington Studio.

The Gallery has a small but significant collection of preparatory designs, artists’ books and drawings relating to nineteenth- and twentieth-century studio glass. These items are sometimes displayed as part of temporary exhibitions. The Gallery has a collection of tools, materials and moulds related to the design and manufacture of glass including items from the Scottish engraver Denis Mann infamous with the Mastermind Trophy, iconic design work of Caithness Glass and items produced by the Scientific Glassblowers at the Dounreay Nuclear Plant. The Gallery also was bequeathed a rare collection of books on glass in 2017 from the late Dan Klein, collector, writer, curator and Professor in Glass at the University of Sunderland who was instrumental in establishing North Lands Creative Glass. We are currently undergoing a project for the Dan Klein Reference Library and aims to be at the heart of glass art historical research.

Since the beginning, North Lands Creative pioneering gallery and curatorial work has been an important part of our focus in order to increase our impact and the value it brings to the UK and International glass community and the local Caithness community where the studio and gallery is located. The campus in based in Lybster, a village in the far North East of Scotland.

Our multi-purpose studio provides a holistic set of professional and community activities including skills training, life long learning courses, artist in residencies, opportunities for UK glass internships and scholarships in technical and curatorial skills, exhibitions and a local arts education and schools programme.

North Lands Creative is a centre for production, research and learning. We support and guide artists in their careers, providing a professional learning space with funding and opportunities. As well as this, the studio provides spaces designed to accommodate research; presentation and staff are available for further mentoring via their specialised facilities. We offer a range of opportunities for all ages and levels of ability to ensure the charity can engage with a wide user group. Through its work with our local arts programme, the studio also allows children, young people and the local community including adult learners and groups to explore different aspects of contemporary studio glass arts practice. Our programme of residencies, commissions and artist projects provides further support for artists working within Scotland, UK and internationally.

In addition to their own programme North Lands Creative have forged a number of partnerships with other organisations that mutually support and augment their outputs. Organisations like Applied Arts Scotland and Edinburgh College of Art make use of the spaces, equipment and staff expertise for their own projects and programmes alongside community groups involved in supporting the most vulnerable in our society like Stepping Stones Adult Mental Health Group and Highland Youth Carers. The span of our engagement also reaches out to international glass studios, museums and universities providing opportunities for British artists to work with our partners in US, Japan, Australia and our projects in Europe in Czech Republic, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Latvia and Romania funded under a Creative Europe Project ISGNE (Imagining Sustainable Glass Network Europe).

We celebrate and preserve master craftsmanship and strengthen the material of glass and its connection to the world of design and contemporary arts practice. We want to help people rediscover the ability of the human hand to create, and support those doing it best: the exceptional contemporary master artisans using long-held traditions, skills and knowledge to make beautiful objects of lasting value. Since 2018 we have worked with the Radcliffe Trust to support the development and practice of the skills, knowledge and experience that

underpin the UK’s cultural heritage glass sector. This includes support for emerging craftspeople of high quality, craft and conservation projects and training, projects demonstrating creative outcomes by designer-makers, projects with potential for capacity building within the sector, and some special needs projects focusing on the therapeutic benefits of skills development. This support has enabled our organisation to deliver five skills classes for 40 students, offer 3 apprenticeships and successfully complete a stained glass window restoration project at the 16 th century Ackergill Tower at Sinclair’s Bay near Wick.

“We are constantly exploring innovative ways to bring audiences closer to the process of making glass art through education, partnership working and open access to our facilities. Our learning programmes offer a route to understanding artistic processes and approaches for artists, life-long learners, teachers, children and young people. Talks, exhibitions and other events provide opportunities for audiences to see the outcomes of our programme.”

2. What is your role on the project?

North Lands Creative is the lead partner for the ISGNE project; our Director Karen Phillips wrote the application that showcases European glass artists, studios and organisations skills and experience whilst gaining rich insights into diverse glass practice from across the continent.

North Lands Creative is delighted for the funding success through the Creative Europe Small Co-operation Category 1 project strand. This competitively sought after award, was one of the 84 projects selected from 401 eligible applications.

North Lands Creative Studio

3. Why were you interested in being involved in the ISGNE project?

Working on a cooperation project, enables North Lands Creative to remain close to our artistic allies across Europe, producing exciting and relevant projects, and keep an outward facing focus to our work despite the anxieties about Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

This includes funding for a network, which allows us to continue to collaborate and communicate with our long-standing partners and develop relationships with artists across Europe on projects about the most important issues for our sector – sustainability including fiscal and environmental concerns.

4. What have you been looking at through ISGNE so far?

ISGNE will lead to the development of supports for artists, designers, curators and cultural workers working in the field of glass in the UK and across Europe through the provision of mobility visits, residencies, exhibitions, professional transnational classes and audience development initiatives such as artist-led community workshops, symposiums and an annual forum.

The ISGNE project will run over four years until May 2022 and will also look to make the medium of glass more accessible to a non-arts audience, bringing to the fore a wider public debate on the sustainability of contemporary glass by a programme of ambitious and unique experiences.

There is a vast, rich and articulated cultural history of European glass making that needs to be taken into account and protected not only for heritage or academic purposes, but also and especially for a consequent revitalization of the medium, through a closer intercultural transmission of knowledge and learning.

The main issues are the accessibility and entrance to learning, the general lack of continuing professional development of training opportunities, lack of standards, lack of access to studio equipment and facilities, loss of transferable skills in teaching, prohibitive cost of training for Glass Artists are all serious barriers. ISGNE project is a vital step to ensure the loss of glass making skills in Europe does not happen in the foreseeable future.

5. One of the goals of ISGNE is to use glass to approach certain issues in the project partners’ local communities. Can you share any examples about an artist making an influence on a community?

I think that success lies not in results, but the process itself, and so each residence is successful in its own way. The indicators to measure our success are qualitative rather than quantitative. Sometimes it is difficult for an artist from abroad to establish a close connection with the community within a month, so the greater impact can be on the local artists that come to the studio, because artists find common language easier.

The local community in Lybster has welcomed artists with open hearts. At that moment, we understood that the greatest impact of this project was not on us (art organisation) but local communities that get to see what art can do in a completely new light, what stories it can tell and, most importantly, that these stories are their stories.

Some of our visiting artists continued to work with the local community on their return. Cleverly harnessing modern technology so that access issues do not disadvantage our participants, particularly in rural areas and the relationship can continue beyond the artist visit to the studio. The technology removes physical barriers to access by creating a shared, virtual space between our audience ‘home’ and the artist’s studio. The democratising potential of the technology is being inventively exploited so that the arts are brought closer to a community that may feel isolated or shut off during these current unprecedented times and for those individuals and groups to realise their own artistic abilities.

The introduction of actual artists to people’s homes and community settings (ie. children in the classroom, residents in care homes) introduces an entirely new, dynamic and innovative dimension to the creative learning experience. The artists are enabling participants to develop art works, in a range of media and over a sustained period of time, which are more challenging and experimental that might otherwise be approached.

6. Co-operation is a fundamental aspect of this initiative. Who are you collaborating with and how did this partnership come about?

The collaboration was quite organic at first, our Director visited the partners’ studios pre application deadline and then the discussions grew from there to shape what has become the successful transnational project. Trust and shared principles are always important and we continue to revisit our main mission regularly. I have provided notes at the end of this doc on each partner…


Alexandra Muresan on ISGNE residency at North Lands Creative.

Elizar Milev (Bulgaria) and Sophie Longwill (Ireland) on ISGNE residency at North Lands Creative

7. What are the benefits of securing the CE funding?

North Lands Creative are extremely excited about the myriad of opportunities this funding provides in the UK and further afield. ISGNE will have huge benefits for European Glass Artists and practitioners, and will also have excellent benefits for our local audiences within Caithness who will benefit from the resulting programme of exhibitions and activities. We look forward to growing our European networks and supporting the work of Glass Artists, and are extremely grateful to Creative Europe for their support of this project.

8. How can artists or organisations be involved in your activities on the ISGNE project? What’s coming up?

We would firstly encourage joining our vibrant network and community of artists and art organisations. Over 16 weeks of lockdown we received 75 new applications to join and with our inaugural Glass Lives Week it would be wonderful to think more people would be interested in joining.

On the ground the programme will resume with the artist in residencies opportunities in Spring, we expect new call outs to begin in Winter. All the information is posted on our website and on our social media accounts. For North Lands Creative we are planning to develop deeper mentorship, scholarship and internship opportunities using both digital and traditional tools.

We made a big point when we decided to postpone our 2020 ISGNE programme and take what we could online to make sure that we worked with artists we already had in our programme. We think there is a wonderful audience that are hungry not only for content to keep them informed and entertained at home, but to show their support for the arts organisations that are important to them.

We are working hard to collect data around the new content and we already have plans to have an online version of our Glass Nexus Forum next summer around the time when our international forum usually takes place on campus. Once we have settled back to a routine we will look at how we can integrate digital further to help European artists at a time when there is reduced mobility.

9. I have read online about your Artists in Residency programme involving time at Berlin Glas e.V and time at North Lands Creative. Can you tell me a bit about why it is designed this way?

During the Partnership preparatory research, it was noted that there were few artist residencies available for artists to collaborate transnationally in glass, with a contrast of experience within an urban/rural context and to co-produce in a supportive environment under the realms of design-led studio production and environmental sustainability. ISGNE encourages applications from a range of disciplines and career stages from design-led studio glass to sustainable practice. The residency is a unique opportunity for artists and/or designer-makers to experience a dual residency, which allows them to work at both organisation’s venues over an extended period of time.

ISGNE AiR strive to cultivate an environment where artists and/or designer-makers can develop their experience as they wish over an eight-week period; whether that be through conceptual development, research, or intervention and experimentation, ISGNE supports artists to have the utmost freedom while in residence. The residency’s structure is therefore left open in order to cater to individuality and spontaneity.

10. How many residencies of this type have been offered?

So far we have delivered four AiRs, two dual residencies with Berlin Glas involving Alexandra Muersan (Romania) and Sophie Longwill (Ireland) and solo residencies at North Lands Creative with designers, Hanna Litwin and Romin Heide from Büro Famos (Germany) and Elizar Milev (Bulgaria).

Hanna Litwin and Romin Heide from Büro Famos (Germany) on ISGNE residency at North Lands Creative

11. Will there by further residencies offered as part of this scheme? or perhaps this strand is on hold due to Covid-19?

We postponed our Spring 2020 AiR and held back putting out our call out for the Autumn 2020 AiR. The good news is we will re-start our AiR programme from early 2021 and concentrate on providing the same amount of AiR opportunities we had planned for the duration of the project. They will just be a different stage in the calendar year. We have created a flexible supportive environment for artists who are worried about the pandemic and travel restrictions and quarantine rules.

12. I understand that one of the aims of the ISGNE project is to promote an awareness of the history of glassmaking in Europe. Are there any events/activities planned specifically around this aim?

Each activity has this aim at the heart of it.

The main aim is to bring together leading artists, designers and masters in glass from Europe to draw out connections between the traditional craft of glass making and the influence it plays on contemporary practice. The activities of ISGNE aim at fostering a critical understanding of artists and designers intersection and investigations with studio glass and how they may learn from sharing techniques and production confidences.

The idea was to stimulate debate and reflect upon the phenomena surrounding European glass making and the sub cultures and movements that developed over time, by bringing together and analysing the connections and correspondences that have helped to shape the identity of modern European glass.

It is important that the ISGNE project is not distinctly connected with any one movement, technique or country, but that from the outset its aim was open to connecting optional and diverse initiatives, opinions and contexts.

13. How important is it to you to be making work internationally and with other European organisations and artists?

It’s really important for an artist to be outside their own context and country, out in the world, even more in these difficult times of tight borders and restrictions. It is the same for arts organisations where we can send our staff to learn and observe in other studios across Europe.

We all need to understand and learn about other places and people. On our staff shadow and advocacy trips we learn more about the place and understood its context and politics a lot more as we focus on meeting people rather than doing a particular activity or make new work.

The majority of our trips so far to Italy, Czech Republic and other areas of the UK have led to new connections and it is the hope that this may form a new partnership programme for us in the future. We always reflect on our progress. It can feel like you haven’t achieved much but an introduction in a corridor or a conversation on a furnace visit can lead to great things one step leads to another.

14. You communicate with artists and studios in other European countries. What is the prevailing mood currently?

Throughout Europe, the situation is similar. When the state of emergency and quarantine were announced in March and the movement of people was restricted, a lot of activities in the cultural sector were suspended. But no one has succumbed to panic and, several months later, the mood is rather optimistic and positive.

Everyone understands the gravity of the situation and most European countries are doing everything to reduce the impact of the virus on the cultural sector and people working in it.

However, we are a creative lot and I think that we will find solutions – proper online tools and channels to reach the audience, offer cultural content and activities accessible at home.

15. How are organisations and artists adapting to the new situation?

We have spoken many times and encouraged partner organisations and artists to maintain close ties. First, we need to make sure that all organisations participating in the project as well as the artists continue to develop their creative ideas for the various activities.

Before this state of emergency was announced, artists were supposed to go to partner countries and research and create new works in our studios. Since we cannot do it right now, we have started to digitally pivot and ask our partners to look for ways of remote cooperation and communication.

For example, our Glass Lives Week plans to provide a special spotlight of the work of artists across Europe so our audiences can familiarise themselves with the local history and context.

Before lockdown we had the chance to film in furnaces in Romania, Italy, UK and Italy so this work will form part of our ISGNE documentary series.

We are currently commissioning a series of podcasts with the wonderful Ica Headman from Creative Me Podcast to capture various viewpoints and interests we hope it can continue to involve as many European artists as possible and amplify their voices into the virtual space.

16. The contemporary glass world is built on mobility: artists and their projects are not subjected to national borders, they travel and work in different countries, and their works are exhibited globally. How do you think the international glass scene will change after this crisis?

In the current situation, I think we all understand that the most important thing is not travelling and journeys, but rather close connections among people. It is naive to think that we are getting back to the same place where we were before this all happened.

It is likely that a lot of things will change, including the models and consumption habits of culture and art. It is very hard to predict the future, we will focus more on our immediate environment, pay more attention to solving local problems of art and culture, start working more locally, focus more on local audiences. And maybe it will result in more consciousness when we think about our international projects and partners.

This period is conductive for bringing culture and art online. Organisations are looking for new ways to introduce their content online. We think that this trend will continue in the near future.

17. Would you agree that lockdowns have shown us the wider importance of culture: networks, communities and projects help people survive this hard period? What will the new normal look like for your organisation?

We have to admit that this period was very difficult for us as the studio is never empty.

The studio temporarily being closed is quite a challenge. We pride ourselves on the support and wrap around care we provide for artists, the communication with people gives us energy and ideas. We love to be busy.

Creativity is immensely important. Creativity gives basis for our life. We “consume” culture not because it helps us survive this difficult period, but because it fills us with new knowledge, shows different ways of seeing the world, inspires us to improve ourselves and move forward.

At North Lands Creative we are excited about the ‘new normal’ we feel privileged that we can continue to support teaching and making. We are listening carefully to what artists and groups need when we reopen. We have always worked intimately with individuals and small groups, as the studio is modest in size so this will continue to be the case. Our programmes allow for a period of intense focused work where isolation is a key factor and an attractive proposition for artists to explore. There are of course the obvious new adaptations and layers to keep people safe but the excellent quality of the experience will continue to be important and will always be the championing aspect on why artists want to visit us.

18. What are your ambitions for the ISGNE project? What’s next?

The funding landscape for us as a UK partner is very uncertain. The most immediate concerns involve continuing ISGNE and growing our impact beyond the first cooperation project which is due to end in May 2022. A recent Arts Council survey showed that most of their national portfolio organisations working internationally see Europe as their most important market.

We would like to believe that the strong and positive impact of ISGNE would attract new models of funding and broaden out the partnership with involvement with other glass studios and arts organisations and grow the partner countries that are willing to be part of a vibrant bigger partnership.

NLC Director, Karen Phillips, pre-application visit to Glass Point, Riga

ISGNE Partners meeting, Glass Nexus Forum, Lybster 2018 L-R Caroline Madden (NCAD), Anna Varnase (Glass Point), Karen Phillips (NLC), Nadania Idriss (Berlin Glas)

Ireland Biennale, Dublin Castle, 2019

Glass Nexus Forum 2018, Lybster

Glass Nexus Forum 2019, Lybster

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