Down a spiral staircase in the basement of artist Alison Zwaard’s home in Nether Edge is a creative haven filled with colourful pieces of glasswork and shimmering silver jewellery.
But rather than being a private space where work is made in seclusion, Alison opens the doors of her studio for regular workshops and courses – and this year she has once again invited visitors in as part of the annual Open Up Sheffield programme, currently happening across the city.
In the first of two weekend events on Steade Road people tried their hand at jewellery making, enjoyed afternoon tea and found out about Alison’s craft, as well as that of her artist friends.
“Very often I feel people have preconceptions about what an artist’s studio is supposed to be like,” said Alison.
“But mine is quite different from the normal set-up – it is open to the public anyway and my neighbours use it as a local gift shop. It’s a very inspiring space.”
Alison works with fused and dichroic glass – a material which possesses the same iridescence as fish scales or hummingbird feathers – as well as precious metal clay, made from finely ground particles of silver.
People often describe my studio as a giant sweet shop for grown-ups
The daughter of a ship’s captain, Alison was born in Liverpool, grew up in South Africa and spent four years travelling before returning to the UK. Penniless, she took a job on the cosmetics counter at Harvey Nichols in London – picking up skills she later returned to by launching perfumery courses to run alongside her craft workshops. A varied career has also found her importing glass and collecting modern British pieces, as well as once running the shop Out of Africa on Ecclesall Road.
“Fused glass is an ancient craft,” said Alison, who leads one-day courses in the technique, allowing participants to make art pieces and take them home at the end of the day.
“Basically in its simplest form you take a solid piece of glass, decorate it, place it in the kiln for between eight and 12 hours and then the glass fuses together until it becomes a single piece.”
Alison compares the precious metal clay to ‘really posh play dough’, but the material still allows an artist to make items which can be fired and polished in a single day.
She said the Open Up Sheffield events allowed visitors to appreciate the variety of spaces artists choose to work in.
“Artists work in so many different spaces,” she said.
“Some people work in purpose-built buildings, others use spaces such as sheds.
“There are lots of shared artist spaces around Sheffield too. It’s always interesting to see the variety of workspaces, and the variety of work around, and to be able to chat to artists and find out about their craft. People often describe my studio as a giant sweet shop for grown-ups, as there are all these colourful things in jars!”
Alison was joined over the Bank Holiday weekend by four other artists, who also exhibited their work – Barbara Maitland, a fine artist who paints in oils; Hannah Lord, who has been picking up tips from Alison on work experience, and John Cox, an illustrator.
Photographer Phillipa Richardson is joining the group this Saturday and Sunday.
“Between us we work in a lot of different mediums,” said Alison.
“It makes it more exciting for the public to see all this work in one place. There are plenty of other open studio events happening around Nether Edge, too, so people can make a day of it. It’s very sociable.”
The open days have a fundraising aspect too – Alison is serving up afternoon tea, including cakes, scones, sandwiches and raspberry pavlova as well as cocktails, to raise money for Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity as part of its Time for Tea campaign.
Fifteen per cent of any art sales made on the open days will also go to the good cause.
Her ex-husband is suffering from cancer, she explained, and he has been undergoing treatment at the Sheffield hospital. “It’s really good to put something back,” said Alison, who raised more than £270 for the campaign.
“Everyone seemed to enjoy it and we’re looking forward to the next weekend.”
* Alison’s studio is open from 11am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Visit Open Up Sheffield for details of other events.