In the final year of her studies at the Glasgow School of Art, Northern Irish maker Caitlin Murphy found herself confined to her student flat due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with no access to the university’s workshops.
Proving that adversity is the mother of invention, Caitlin was compelled during this time to experiment with alternative materials. She began creating 3D structures from aluminum beer cans that she had previously only achieved using paper, deconstructing the cans then weaving them back together.
Once back in the workshop Caitlin refined and reproduced this same concept in brass and oxidised copper, resulting in XYZ, a degree show collection that is unique and sculptural, featuring repetitive, illusory patterns. The interplay between metal and paper remains a core component of the work - the act of meticulously crafting pieces in paper before translating them to metal a testament to Caitlin’s commitment to precision and accuracy, something perhaps drawn from a family history entrenched in the discipline of silversmithing.
Caitlin, what first attracted you to a career as a maker, and how did you get started in the industry?
I think that I've always been attracted to making. It's always been something that has come naturally to me. I'm really lucky in a sense, because I come from a family of silversmiths, so some of my earliest memories are of being about nine years old, wearing tiara on my head and hammering in the workshop with my mum. Experiences like that really drew me to a career in the industry.
As time went on, I started making my own shell necklaces and going to craft fairs. At one point, I was making my own little business cards. It just all just came so naturally, and it was so nice to do something that didn't really feel like a chore. It just felt like fun. Then I applied for the Glasgow School of Art, as I had decided that was where I wanted to go, so if I didn’t get in, that would be it. Luckily, I did get in, however, and it’s been an amazing experience ever since. My love for making has just grown, and I’ve met so many people who are as interested in making as I am.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine 2022?
My collection is called XYZ, and I developed it over my final year at Glasgow School of Art as my degree show collection. A lot of trial and error was involved in completing it. Due to Covid-19, we had no workshop access for a year, so it was like being thrown into the deep end, and a lot of students on the course found it really intense. We were told to work at home using paper, that was always the medium, paper, paper, paper. It got to a point where halfway through the year, I was like: “Okay, I'm a bit bored of paper, what else can I find?”
When I was younger, I would always use toilet roll tubes to make different models. They’re actually such a good medium to work from, because they’re an already cylindrical form.
So, I started trying to see how I could develop from the toilet roll tube. I found that aluminum cans were a metal equivalent that I could find in Tescos, or whichever shops were open at that time, because obviously we had limited access during the pandemic. I was using Tennent’s cans and Guinness cans. The Tennent’s cans represented my Scottish roots, and the Guinness cans took me back to my Irish roots. That was just a way of giving me a bit of normality, a sense of home comforts, almost.
I began cutting up the cans, and reweaving them back together again. That was a huge turning point! I found it so interesting to see what you can do with an aluminum can, and how you can almost create your own sheet of metal.
So then as I began my fourth year, I was back in the workshop and thinking about what to work on. I knew I wanted to work on a silversmithing scale, and I was thinking about what I’d done in the past that was fun, but that could still challenge me. At that time, I was writing a lot in my dissertation about the boundaries of metal compared to the boundaries of paper.
What I found interesting is that with paper, you can fold it and unfold it a million times, and 90% of the time, it's not going to break or tear. It's pretty structurally sound. With metal, it's different - you need it to be thin enough to fold, and you still can't really fold and then unfold it, because it can break. So, the challenge was seeing how much I could directly translate from paper into metal before it would give or break.
That idea started to develop from Guinness and Tennent’s cans into copper and brass. The golden coloured brass was the Tennent’s cans, and then the oxidised copper was the Guinness. I instantly got this sense of excitement, because I was able to make these checkerboard patterns, and then I was attaching them to these steel frame forms. I was building up my structure, and it felt like something I'd taught myself. It didn't feel like I was doing the traditional raising or chasing. I was creating an amazing surface texture and surface pattern from weaving the metal, and it felt bizarre, but it just worked.
As time went on, I began to see how I could push that - how I could scale up even bigger, and also challenge myself with the patterns. I work a lot with digital design and use my computer, so I was generating a lot of patterns on my laptop, printing them out on paper, creating a model, and then making it in metal. That whole process was great. Throughout the collection, there's always that process of paper to metal, trying it on paper again and then going back to metal, and just that constant movement between the two. That whole conversation between material and maker was really exciting for me.
How would you describe your design style?
I would say that when I look at my collection as a whole, my design style is very much based on precision and accuracy. Some people might call it obsessive, but I spend a really, really long-time planning before I actually go into working with metal, partly because I end up having less wastage in my material, but also just because it gives me that reassurance that I’m doing things correctly. So, a lot of the work that I do just wouldn't look the same if the process wasn’t as precise and accurate, and I think that's really important. That really runs throughout the collection, and I find that attention to detail exciting, the idea that something can be beautiful, because it involves this almost therapeutic process of precision.
I also grew up seeing my mom or my grandfather producing work that I found amazing. I always remember working with my grandpa in the workshop, and him being like, “No, do it again, that's not good enough”. Some might say that’s harsh, but I feel like it was the tough love that I needed. It gave me an understanding that there is a standard within this business, and meeting that standard makes your work more appealing and eye-catching. I think it was really important for me to grow up seeing that, because now I’m putting it into practice.
Have you explored any new techniques or materials whilst working on this collection?
Yes, one hundred per cent! I look at my collection now and I compare it to where I started in September, and I never would have seen myself welding and oxidizing or even weaving, that never crossed my mind. Going back into the workshop was obviously helpful, it was great to experiment and try new processes, but for me, it was the trial and error that was most significant.
When I make a mistake, I don’t necessarily consider it a bad thing. I know some people get annoyed when something doesn’t work, but I’m really interested in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the idea that you can mend things rather than remake them or throw them away. If something doesn’t go right, I try to think about why that is, how I can improve it next time, and also, how I cannot disregard that broken thing, or thing that didn’t work how I’d hoped, and make it into something beautiful. I think that comes through in the collection, because there's some fragmented work that is still precise, but at its core it almost has that brokenness, yet is still beautiful.
Do you enjoy working on that range and exploring how you can use different or similar techniques, but on a different scale?
For years, my family said I would be the third-generation silversmith, and I was always like “no I won’t. I'm going to be a jeweller.” Then, as I got into fourth year, that lack of access to a workshop changed my perspective, so that when I got back at the bench, my first thought was “okay, how big can I go?” The idea that I could go huge really excited me. I never felt shamed for going big - if anything, they told me to go bigger every time, which was amazing!
One of the main influences for me was going to the Scottish Gallery a few years ago and seeing the Miniaturists exhibition, and how silversmiths had scaled their work down into jewellery pieces. It was a pin drop moment. I realised that I didn’t have to be a silversmith or a jeweller, I could be both, and that opened up so many doors. I love jewellery, and I love being able to wear jewellery that I've made.
It’s this idea that if you don’t want this large object, then you can have a smaller version of it, and there’s this conversation and movement between the two. The majority of my pieces for the collection were on a silversmithing scale, but what excites me is the idea of changing the scale of those pieces in future. I had so many conversations with different people when I took some of my work to New Designers in London - people would ask, “what if you did that piece as a brooch?”
I was pretty adamant that the collection was just going to consist of silversmithing, apart from the odd thing that I was wearing, but after I started to imagine a really super illusional brooch that shimmered in the light. I think it's another adventure to go to in the future maybe.
What’s your favourite thing about being a maker?
I genuinely just love being a maker. It sounds silly, but when I go into the workshop, I feel like you breathe this sigh of relief, and then all of a sudden, you just enter the flow state. I could be working away, and then look up at the clock and realise three hours have passed, and I'd be none the wiser. It's something that I find really therapeutic and meditative, almost. It just feels really nice that it’s a hobby, something I enjoy, yet, I want to make a career out of it. That’s exciting - it's rare that you find something that you not only love, but you can also do as a job.
Is there one piece in this collection that you would say is your favourite?
My favourite piece is the Illusion Cube. Although it’s small enough to hold in your hands, it’s still a pretty big object. For me, the Cube was probably one of the most challenging pieces that I've ever made. What I found really exciting about it was that I designed it on my computer, printed it out on paper, made a fiscal model, and thought I knew exactly how it was going to look, but the minute I translated it into metal, it was a different story. The metal started going in directions that I didn’t necessarily want it to go.
It again came back to that conversation of – “you can't force it, you need to just work with the material and guide it, rather than forcing it into places it doesn't want to go.” So, I think the attention to detail involved in that piece, and the real level of accuracy needed to create it, was what made the experience stand out. I remember finishing it and just taking a step back and being like, “wow, I can't believe I've had the patience to sit and see this through.” I breathed such a sigh of relief when it was complete, but it was also very satisfying.
What kind of person do you think will be most attracted to your collection?
What’s really interesting is, that before I did my degree show and New Designers, I had never really considered what happens when you give away your piece. It’s no longer just your story, it's like someone else layering their story on top of yours. They're putting it in their house or they're wearing it or giving it as a gift.
I wasn't really making jewellery until about three weeks before my final degree show, when I realised that I should probably wear earrings that I’d made myself to the show. When I was making them, something just clicked, and I realised that I really liked what I was doing. What was interesting is that at the shows, people came up to me and asked about translating the work to jewellery, it was something that I didn’t even have to bring up in conversation. My instant answer was yes, it was possible, because it's doing the same technique but just on a smaller scale. So, I can envision it - you could have a silversmithing object in your house, and then put on a wee miniature version of it as jewellery when you go out. It just adds a bit of playfulness, a sense of fun.
What’s next - what are your professional and creative goals for the next two years?
Everyone says that your final degree show isn’t the end, it’s the beginning! But I don't think that really registered until I actually did it. My degree show and New Designers opened up so many conversations for me with multidisciplinary people - interior designers, architects, even textile designers, because of the weaving involved in my pieces. That was exciting, and then Shine 2022 became another thing to really get excited about.
I'm also going to Bishopsland Educational Trust in September, which is great - I feel like it's a place where I can go with ideas that I have not had the chance to develop yet, and really push myself. You have workshop access pretty much full time, seven days a week. It seems like an environment where you're submerging yourself in silversmithing and jewellery. Some people might run away from that, but that sounds like my idea of heaven - finding that making bliss. You do different exhibitions, you get to work with the Goldsmiths’ Centre again on Getting Started, I just think it's a really exciting opportunity. We'll see what happens on the other side of it, but I'm sure that it will only be good.
Could you tell me a bit about how your more sculptural pieces situate within a home or in a display in an exhibition?
I see the pieces in my collection as a group. I designed them with the idea of still life paintings in mind - how you can rearrange and move them around. For me, the table was never my only plane, I also saw the wall as an extension of that table. The work can move not only between your table or your mantelpiece, but also be situated on the wall as a still life painting. I was really inspired by the painter Bridget Riley, the illusions she creates in her work. That 2D aspect, I was thinking about how you might translate that idea into something 3D, and into silversmithing, yet retain its function as a painting.
It was really interesting to look at how the work can sit in a home, and how it doesn't have to just be limited to the table. It can function in other ways.