What inspires craft makers? ‘I am intrigued by people and want the pieces to tell a story’

Grief, the sea, and a desire to make beautiful, meaningful things, are some of the motivations driving these artists

How we decorate our homes says a lot about our personalities and while most of us like to be somewhat individual in our decor, we can all appreciate the beauty of a handcrafted piece of art, furniture or ornament.

But, while we enjoy looking at these pieces and ensure they are pride of place in our homes, we don’t often think about the talented people behind the creation. So, in order to find out where the artists get their inspiration from and how they feel about their creations, three craftspeople tell us about the stories behind their work.

Suzanne O’Sullivan lives in Fermoy, Co Cork, with her husband Dermot and their two children. Having studied art in Crawford College of Art and Design, she is currently working as a glass artist, and is constantly amazed by the results of her craft, which, she says is inspired by her location.

“My natural surroundings strongly influence my work and I’m often seen out gathering wildflowers, ferns and foliage from the local countryside to use in my glass work. I also incorporate found and recycled glass, wine bottles, old windows, glass shower doors and old broken greenhouse glass, which I will happily melt into something new and beautiful. Not all the glass I use is 100 per cent recycled, but I do incorporate it into my designs as much as possible as I have a zero waste policy in my studio. So all smaller scrap pieces of glass from larger projects are used to create jewellery and smaller pieces.”


A few years ago, the family moved to north Cork, where O’Sullivan’s studio overlooks the beautiful Blackwater Valley, which, she says, is “hugely influential” in her work.

“I can see so clearly how my work has changed since I moved here – with the rolling hills and movement of the water seen in my sculptural bowls. I also love going to the beach – Youghal is one of my favourite places to go for a walk and find calm and inspiration.”

During the Covid lockdowns, O’Sullivan remained productive.

“With fewer resources available, I had a set of old shower doors, just waiting to be used – it gave me great satisfaction to smash the glass and reshape into something completely different. It took me a few firings to get it right, but I loved the results,” she says, adding that she also started using old wine bottles to create little sculptural vessels, which can be used as vases. These are now part of her “Bacchus Collection”, inspired by the Greek god of wine and mother nature.

“I see these as a nod to the importance of reusing what’s around us and also to celebrate and remember the good times,” she says.

With prices starting at €25, business is steady for O’Sullivan, with commissions coming from both individual customers and companies.

Brendan Brownlee lives in Belfast with his wife Alma and their two children. As the owner and sole employee of Bheann Mhadagáin barrels, he hand-crafts bespoke household furniture and other homeware pieces – from garden furniture to fruit bowls, cheese boards and bottle openers – out of oak whiskey barrels.

Having started in the summer of 2021 as a hobby, it became a full time job less than a year later, and he gets huge satisfaction from his craft.

“Four years ago I attended a box fiddle making course in The Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts (in Belfast). It gave me the bug, and piqued my interest in wood working, so at the start of the pandemic, I had an ' I can do that’ moment after reading an article about barrel crafting. I refurbished two barrels and put them up on my Facebook page to show family and friends – they were sold within an hour.”

It was a complete change of scene for Brownlee. Until February 2022, he worked as a health and wellbeing caseworker, and before that, he worked in a residential children’s home.

“Both were intense roles as hearing so many stories of hurt and loss can take its toll. Self-care is vitally important if you want to sustain yourself – so being able to go into my shed in the evening or weekend gave me a creative outlet, which helped to maintain my equilibrium,” he says.

But it was the death of his mother Frances, in August 2021, which compelled him to make a more permanent change.

“I knew within a very short space of time that I wanted to change career”.

Now he is enjoying the process of taking a rusty old barrel and reimagining it as something else – “taking something that many assumed was at the end of its life and shaping it into things that are beautiful to look at and also functional”.

Brownlee takes inspiration from the world around him; a trip to the Giant's Causeway for example, provided the inspiration for his Causeway Coasters, while after daydreaming about the Yin Yang symbol, he wondered if they would make unique charcuterie boards – “and they did”.

Almost a year on, Brownlee is happy he made the change.

“I get a real buzz out of the reactions expressed by people when they see the final product and I put a lot of effort into everything that I make. People work hard for their money, so I really want to make something that they feel is beautiful, functional and superb value for money.”

Brownlee sells his crafts at St George’s Market, Belfast and other markets around the country.

Regularly inspired by the ocean, Yvonne Leon is a ceramic artist and an art teacher, living in Greystones, Co. Wicklow with her husband, Marc, and two teenage sons. Originally from Dublin, she makes ceramic figures from stoneware and porcelain – all of which are “unisex, sometimes only expressing themselves through a tilt of their head or hand gesture”.

“The subtlety in their body language speaks volumes in a silent, gentle way. I often make figures based on my love of the sea and sea swimming – these hold the waves inside them or around them, constantly connected or thinking of the sea. Empathy, protection and togetherness feature in all my pieces and are all ‘in the moment’. They are reflective in their mood and calm in thought, almost in a dream state of contemplation,” she says.

From her first year in secondary school, Leon wanted to be a ceramic artist, before she had even touched any clay.

“I realise that might sound strange, and honestly I didn’t understand it myself, but I was compelled to follow that path. I wasn’t academic at all and struggled a lot – I tried my best, but didn’t pass my Leaving Cert as unbeknown to me, I had undiagnosed dyslexia, so my exams were an absolute mess.”

Leon was subsequently told, in a mock interview, that she would never see the inside of an art college. As it turned out however, she was given a chance by the head of Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork.

“He seemed to be impressed with all the extra portfolio projects that I crammed in during the summer to make a last plea to be accepted into the college – and must have seen potential in my practical work, because he gave me a last resort interview and told me to sign up straight away,” she recalls, adding that she received a distinction in ceramics from the college, and then went on to complete her degree year in the Dublin college which was “the very same place that told me I wouldn’t see the inside of their college.”

It was “a very sweet defining moment” for Leon. However, her inspiration changed dramatically after she lost her first husband and childhood sweetheart to cancer when she was 29.

“He was just 30 and we were only 21 months married. I would have been fairly emotionally intelligent before that, but through caring for him, and after experiencing his death, my empathy and grief went through the roof. I channelled that into my work and it materialised into the calm figures I now create. I am intrigued by and interested in people and want the pieces to reflect or tell a story.”

During the summer, Leon was invited to exhibit at Argillà Italia, an international ceramic festival in Italy, where, upon seeing her work, people felt compelled to stay a while and share their stories.

“It was almost therapeutic. I get many commissions from people who want me to represent them in some way through the artwork, or to touch upon something that is important in their lives. Something that is hard to put into words – an emotion, intimacy, a relationship or a personal situation. And I try to capture the essence of those feelings in the clay.”

suzanneosullivan.ie, facebook.com/BheannMhadagainBarrels, yvonneleonceramics.com

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories