Marking 30 years of craft at Grennan Mill

Approximately 600 students have passed through the doors of Grennan Mill Craft School since its opening in 1981, and the craft school is trying to gather as many of them as possible for a 30th-anniversary event at the Thomastown venue next month.

Approximately 600 students have passed through the doors of Grennan Mill Craft School since its opening in 1981, and the craft school is trying to gather as many of them as possible for a 30th-anniversary event at the Thomastown venue next month.

A celebration on June 4 will bring together many of those who have been involved in the craft school over the past three decades.

Originally set up in the venue which is now home to the Berkeley Gallery, in the mid-1980s it moved further along the River Nore to its current location, the converted grain lofts of the 18th-century Island Mill. A post-Leaving Certificate course of Grennan College, it is funded by the Co Kilkenny Vocational Education Committee (VEC) and Grennan College.

Its current course director is Alexandra Meldrum, who took over the position when George Vaughan retired from the post after 25 years.

Speaking from the craft school last week in the middle of preparations for the celebrations, she points back to a 1960s report on the state of design in Ireland, which led to the creation of the Kilkenny Design Workshops – the success of which in turn led to a heightened awareness of the craft sector, she notes. “Kilkenny became nearly a Mecca for craft,” she says.

There was a desire for a place where people could learn the skills and techniques of craft, with the only viable creative options at the time being art colleges in larger urban areas, and those focussed on fine art, she says.

The idea behind the Grennan Mill Craft School was that students would learn the basic techniques in a variety of disciplines rather than focussing on one area alone, and that the tutors would be practicing craftspeople, which would bring the added benefit of students being able to witness master craftspeople at work in their studios.

Its present tutors have a strong connection with the craft school, including Niall Harper (ceramics) and Peter Donovan (metal craft), who have been there since its inception. Catherine Ryan, who teaches woven textiles, is a past student of the craft school, as is Debra Bowden, the current print-making tutor; and Ms Meldrum works as the Batik tutor.

The two-year craft course has been a FETAC level 5 certificate in Art, Craft and Design, and a new setup will begin with the next round of students in September. At that point, the first year will lead to level 5 certification and the second year will be a level 6 accreditation in Professional Arts Practice.

The school also offers summer courses in Batik, ceramics, silver jewellery, nontoxic printmaking and Japanese woodblock.

Part of what has shaped Grennan Mill Craft School over the years has been the variety of students who have learned their craft there. Each year brings a new group of 14 students, from a range of ages and backgrounds, and many from elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

“The students include school leavers, people wanting to create portfolios, people who think they might want to pursue a craft apprenticeship but aren’t sure which area is for them, people who have degrees but want to come back for skills and techniques, or people who just want to indulge their interest in craft,” Ms Meldrum says.

They have included names such as Rosemary Durr, Roisin Leadbetter, Valerie Walshe, Denise Donovan, Susan Proud, Dylan Vaughan and many others who have become well established locally and further afield.

The school has a database of all who have participated in the course since 1981 and is working to contact them in the hope that they can attend next month’s celebrations. (Eva Lynch, who is also organising the town’s Happy Valley Festival, has been using resources such as Facebook to find the former students – and any who have yet not been reached are asked to contact grennanmill@eircom.net, evylynch@hotmail.com or 056 7724557.) Also on the guest list are past and current tutors, VEC and Grennan College staff (Ms Meldrum has particular thanks for principal William Norton), and people and businesses in Thomastown who have contributed to the school’s success over the years.

The occasion will coincide with the end-of-year exhibition, which will be open for an extended period from June 3-10 due to 2011 being designated as the Year of Craft. The added dates will also accommodate a visit from a European craft delegation who are travelling to Kilkenny from June 8-10.

It will be a chance for them to experience the setting that has been described by students as “magical”.

“With the actual building, the location of it is so impressive. It has such a unique ambiance,” Ms Meldrum agrees. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say we are all one big happy family, but my aspiration is that we all inspire one another.

Just travelling along the lane that leads to the school can be inspiring, she says. “No matter what is happening in your life, the minute you turn off the road and walk down the lane –and it’s never polished or manicured, it’s a little bit wild and romantic – it gives you a few moments to gather yourself and enter a new world.”

It’s a place where, most importantly, “the common denominator is a love of craft”.

For more information about Grennan Mill Craft School, see www.grennanmill.net.