Art of the inspiration

Rosa Nguyen, Gardening With William Morris.
Rosa Nguyen, Gardening With William Morris.
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The standard of submissions for this year’s John Ruskin Prize was so high the exhibition has more to see than expected as Yvette Huddleston found out.

The latest exhibition at the Millennium gallery in Sheffield showcases the work of artists, makers and craftspeople shortlisted for the fourth annual John Ruskin Prize.

A leading art critic during the Victorian era, Ruskin was famously a man of many talents – draughtsman, painter, social campaigner, philanthropist – so the artists were asked to investigate the idea of the artist as polymath and respond to the theme Master of All Trades. The wide range of work on display in the exhibition includes artworks that demonstrate the relationship between fine art and arts and crafts as well as pieces highlighting the similarities between artists and scientists in terms of observation and experimentation.

There are 26 exhibits in all but according to curator Kirstie Hamilton, who was also one of the judges on the selection panel, there could have been a lot more. “We had over a thousand submissions and they were all very impressive,” she says. “It has been great to see such a truly diverse range of approaches to the theme. It made it more challenging to judge, but it was exciting.”

The judges spent two days selecting the shortlist and the eventual prize winners, announced last month, working from photographs. “We didn’t see the works in the flesh until they arrived for the exhibition which speeds things up but when you are not seeing the actual work it can be hard to understand its presence. It was a really interesting process and we had lots of good conversations.”

The first prize went to Rosa Nguyen’s mixed media piece Gardening with William Morris. “We were particularly drawn to Rosa’s work,” says Hamilton. “There are ceramic and glass elements to it and dried flowers. There is a strip of William Morris wallpaper incorporated into the piece and Morris’ wallpaper was all about bringing the garden inside. There is something quite joyful and fun about the piece, expressing the desire to connect the natural world with everyday life.”

Bethan Lloyd Worthington’s piece Have You Seen This Cup? It could be anywhere here won the second prize. The work combines porcelain, needlepoint tapestry and canvas. “She has crafted a small cup on a beautiful shelf and it brings together all the aspects of fine art and many craft skills,” says Hamilton. “It is really well executed and brings together an element of fantasy and narrative to create something that is quite a beautiful combination.”

The student and recent graduate prize went to Fi Smart for her work It Hardly Seems Possible Such Sorrow Has Come which commemorates the First World War. Smart recreated three artillery shells and wrapped them with drawings of soldiers and scenes from the trenches. “She made it as part of an illustration degree,” says Hamilton. “There is a strong narrative to the work with references to the Battle of the Somme and snippets of letters home.”

The exhibition features work from artists at different stages of their careers working in a variety of media. “Our initial plan was for twenty exhibits but the submissions were of such a high quality we struggled to limit ourselves to 26,” says Hamilton.

The John Ruskin Prize 2017: Master of All Trades, at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield until October 8.