That’s the intention behind Guildworks, a gallery-shop in a charming coach house in Bloomfield, Ontario that is calling us to question what craft is, the art behind it and the skill that goes into every piece.
Run by Guy de Carteret and Karen Bell, Guildworks opened after they moved to Bloomfield with the idea of working for themselves and doing something about which they both felt passionate. Bell has a degree in art history and de Carteret was a producer in the performing arts and a long-time collector, so it felt natural to open Guildworks. “We are both passionate about the handmade and contemporary craft,” says Bell. “We were inspired by the level of prestige craft has in places like the UK and Japan. We knew that level of skill existed in Canada; we just don’t seem to appreciate it as much here. So, it became our mission to start uncovering it and decided to focus entirely on Canadian work. Underlying that was challenging our disposable culture and highlighting the sustainable nature of craft.”
Guildworks opened in July, 2019 with a modest list of twenty-five artists from across the country who were producing beautiful, well-considered, handmade work and it received an enthusiastic welcome from the local arts community. “It was so quick. We arrived in April and were literally unpacking boxes in the house and setting up the shop in the coach house and yet our timing seemed to be right for the idea.” Of course, convincing artists – some of them award-winning internationally exhibiting artists – to trust two gallery novices with no real art pedigree, in a tiny village, was no small feat. “We had several wonderful conversations about art, practice and how craft is really under-appreciated in the hierarchy of ‘art,’” says de Carteret. “But they trusted us and believed in our vision. And having a few artists who were considered masters come on board really helped.”
Then came March 2020 and it all ground to a halt. “We got a solid six months in, and like so many others, the pandemic hit us hard,” says de Carteret. “But thankfully, the shop is located in the coach house, next to our house, so we didn’t have the added pressure of storefront expenses. However the stop-start of the last two years has certainly been challenging.”
Guildworks now has a roster of close to seventy artists from all over the country. Several are in the Hastings and Prince Edward area. “Our inventory is constantly changing as we bring in new artists and new work from our existing group,” says de Carteret. “Part of the joy of the gallery is situating work from one artist next to another and seeing how the space changes. Just as we spend a lot of time selecting artists and selecting specific pieces, we spend an equal amount of time deciding what piece goes where in the gallery and next to which other piece, usually from another artist working in an entirely different medium. We enjoy the conversations pieces have with each other, the often surprising juxtapositions and alignments. I think our customers feel that too. Many people have remarked on how peaceful the space feels. We have an eclectic array and yet it all seems to fit together. We bring in objects we love. They are pieces to be cherished and have a timeless appeal.”
And it’s true: what is unique about Guildworks is the open, tranquil home-like environment. It doesn’t look like a traditional gallery, but straddles the line between gallery and shop. Spread over two floors is a wide-range of clay, glass, wood, textile and stone work, peppered with some visual art and sculpture. “We want the works to have a relationship with each other, and a tension,” says Bell, “and set up in a way you would in your own home. Sometimes people need to visualize it, see a piece in a space and consider how it could work with what they already have.”
The line between gallery and shop is further articulated by de Carteret: “Although we have had a number of shows upstairs, we decided right from the beginning not to operate on an exhibition model – where an artist’s work comes in for four weeks or so before another artist comes in for another four weeks. We didn’t want to do the revolving door. We wanted to bring in beautiful work that can stay a while and be with other work that also stays a while. There is a certain permanence there and a certain slowness to both the approach and process of a piece finding its home. We like that. We’ve had customers return again and again to look at a particular piece before buying it.”
Bell and de Carteret have worked hard on creating an oasis of beauty and character, a far cry from sterile straight lines and white walls. It is a beautiful space. The environment is welcoming and the tone at Guildworks is casual and friendly. Close examination of pieces is encouraged, as is asking questions about how a piece is made and an artist’s practise. At Guildworks, the story of a piece is just as important as who made it. “Craft really has had its challenges,” says Bell, “with changes in technology, the idea of something being handmade, of taking time and consideration and producing slowly, is increasingly lost. We’re used to mass production. What we’re trying to do here is put some value, prestige, and appreciation back into handmade objects, to show people that as much thought and consideration goes into blowing a piece of glass or turning a piece of wood as applying paint to canvas. And we also forget that artists play in different mediums. Picasso painted on canvas and also has a huge body of ceramic work. Michelangelo painted and sculpted. You call them artists, not crafters or makers, so why wouldn’t you call a glass-blower or potter an artist?”
Each piece, and each artist, is carefully chosen. There are numerous Saiyde Bronfman Award winners (Canada’s highest craft prize designation) as well as artists who are at the beginning of their careers. What they have in common is a point of view, an aesthetic, and they are pushing the boundaries of their medium to challenge its properties, or explore an idea. Because of this, many customers come in to the shop and assume all the pieces are expensive. “That’s not necessarily true,” says Bell. “Of course, some pieces are because of the level of the artist, the expense of the materials and the time it takes to make each piece. But some pieces, sometimes by that same artist, are much more affordable. We have people come in who love an artist’s work and buy a small piece. Then they come back and buy another and begin to invest in the artist.”
Guildworks understands that education in craft is a journey, and that it takes time to appreciate and understand how an item is made, and why it costs more. That’s part of the ‘challenges’ referred to earlier. But price and competing with mass production aren’t the only factors. An appreciation of a piece as an art also plays a big role. Often when you say craft, people picture kitsch. What we’ve forgotten is craft used to mean skill – potters, glass blowers, candle makers, even dressmakers and tailors were highly skilled and talented masters of their craft. At one point, if you didn’t go to a potter, you didn’t have a bowl or a mug. In fact, Guildworks’ name pays homage to the craft guilds that trained and apprenticed people to work in those crafts.
But as technology changed, and our expectations and lifestyles changed, so did our appreciation of those skills. Sure, the pandemic has resurrected an interest in ‘slow’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘supporting local’. Many craft forms are enjoying a resurgence as people have had more time at home, and are wanting to reduce their impact on the environment, which means changing our ways. “We find that, more and more, people come into the shop looking for something unique to add to their homes, or to give as a gift,” says Bell. “Maybe it’s two years of people staring at their own four walls, but we find people are being more purposeful and intentional about how they’re decorating their homes, and what kind of spaces they want to live in. They want to be surrounded by things that speak to them, that make them happy and, of course, they want less and less of the mass-produced, generic pieces.”
Like a painting, each work at Guildworks – whether it’s turned wood, glass, clay, stone or textile, is an original. “Because of the nature of craft, even if an artist makes ten vases, and even uses the same glaze, each piece will be different because it’s all done by hand,” says de Carteret. “People leave really happy because they know that what they’ve purchased has been touched by human hands, that it’s unique and made by one of the best artists in the country.”
Guildworks at 346 Main St., Bloomfield. www.guildworks.ca