The East Sussex county town has become a hothouse of maker and crafts businesses in the last twenty years. Here four maker-crafts-people are profiled, each highlighting a different craft and underlining the diverse spectrum of makers who have set down roots in the town.
Turn off the TV and come and hammer, saw and chisel away at chunks of interestingly sized cellulose based organic matter – AKA wood - with carpenter-maker-designer William Hardie, the well-known design presenter – the one with all the hats - on George Clark’s Amazing Spaces. That’s been the message of Making Lewes, a small band of makers, architects, writers and sustainability bods, who have set up Lewes’s annual autumn Make Lewes Festival, with a focus on live all-are-welcome design & make workshops co-led by, among others, Hardie, an original member of the organisation.
His Studio Hardie workshop is still part of a rump of maker businesses on Lewes’s Phoenix Industrial Estate, which until planning was granted for a commercial housing development, was full to the rafters with a burgeoning makers community. The studio is also only one tip of a multi-peaked iceberg when it comes to Lewes and its makers and crafts-people.
Hardie, who does put time in on real live designing and making, both of weird and wonderfully impossible – or previously unimaginable – as well as lovingly realised home, street and playground furniture projects, is very much in character when it comes to the atmospherics of Lewes makers; unlike some more retro and fashion oriented maker scenes in some East Sussex towns, there’s a definite leaning towards the woody, the earthy and the natural. Part of why Hardie is in Lewes is likely because of the disproportionate numbers of timber-framers and carpenters living in or near the county town. He’s also representative of many, in that he was on Brighton University’s 3D Design & Craft course in Wood, Metal & Plastics, which produces a steady stream of highly skilled, creative and imaginative hands-on designers, who leave the safety of an art college, thinking they’d like to stay on in this neck of the – ahem – woods, and often find their way eight miles east and setting up shop in Lewes.
But with the makers' movement that’s old news. Craft and making is hip again.Oliver Lowenstein Writer and Journalist
That’s part of the story of Tanya Gomez, roughly part of the same age range as Hardie – later thirty something’s into early forty something’s - and making a considerable splash in another media; ceramics. Gomez moved from Brighton to Lewes after another element in her life story came to an end, working and crewing on boats sailing across the Atlantic. Living on the high seas, and the taste of different cultures reinforced a love of vivid, brilliant colours, which have been translated into vivid, brilliantly coloured pottery, primary reds, yellows and blues.
There’s another echo of the watery ocean realms in the soft curvaceous waves that Gomez’s vessels implicitly convey. These vessels, including tableware, though also free form water holders, have become increasingly well-known and popular in the world of ceramics, and Gomez’s work is followed – and bought - internationally, as well shown at the UK’s most prestigious craft gatherings, including a specially commissioned piece for last years Collect, the Crafts Council’s annual showcase in London. Gomez is another tip in a vibrant, if less visible, local Lewes ceramics scene, a definite cluster in the town.
Anne Marie ‘O Sullivan’s life up to her discovery of willow basketry in the late nineties, tells a rather different story, though the passion she holds for her craft equals Gomez’s. A Northern Irish swimming champion she gravitated to Brighton for a PGCE, ending up teaching at the city’s Buddhist Dharma School for many years. There, she discovered willow and basketry, becoming obsessed with the material, process, traditions and history. Here again, though it might not be immediately evident, the Lewes makers community is central, as ‘O Sullivan began lessons one of a small handful of Lewes based older generation basket makers.
This has since blossomed for ‘O Sullivan into twin-track career, making traditional baskets, along with teaching and running her own courses, and an art dimension, begun by being brought into an exhibition at Fabrica in 2012, and continued, with her joint research work – with another Lewes ceramicist, Elaine Bolt – into creativity and collaboration, MakingGround, which culminated in a series of exhibitions in 2016. Like Gomez, ‘O Sullivan has developed a formidable range of basket making skills and also becoming a font of knowledge regarding this medium which is on the verge of extinction.
Unlike ‘O Sullivan, who grows her materials in willow stands near to Lewes, Nick Benjamin, needs to order in the very particular woods that he requires for his luthier business. Benjamin works in the Star Gallery, a warren of studios just off the main Lewes High Street. He’s one of a half-dozen or so – principally Spanish – guitar and mandolin makers who congregated around the gallery through the nineties, most of whom have either moved on or stopped guitar making. For a while, the town was a centre for Spanish guitar making, members of whom ran the popular Lewes Guitar Festival in the mid-noughties. Now Benjamin and a smaller coterie continue this nook of Lewes making, passing on skills to a new generation, encouraging news when it can seem as if the younger generations are a world away from craft and making.
But with the makers' movement that’s old news. Craft and making is hip again. There have been crafts-people in Lewes all through the last forty years since it was the last fashionable in the 1970s. Now that it’s all the rage again, the Lewes scene, quietly going about its business, is once again being noticed, talked about, and getting known, both in Britain and internationally. Lewes, the centre of the crafts-makers.