Norfolk Open Studios

Ian Collins These days the Norfolk and Norwich Festival really runs through the whole of May - with a week on Saturday seeing both the finale of the performing arts gala and the launch of Norfolk Open Studios 2008. Now the largest event of its kind in the country, with more than 250 artists featured, this free county-wide exhibition runs from May 17 to June 1.

Ian Collins

These days the Norfolk and Norwich Festival really runs through the whole of May - with a week on Saturday seeing both the finale of the performing arts gala and the launch of Norfolk Open Studios 2008.

Now the largest event of its kind in the country, with more than 250 artists featured, this free county-wide exhibition runs from May 17 to June 1 - and most especially over the last three weekends of the month.

Last year Norfolk Open Studios attracted an audience exceeding 21,000, with an average of more than 50 visitors per participating venue and almost 3,000 works of art sold overall.

This year's event will be even bigger, with a record of nine combined galleries or artist collectives - including Walcott's fabulous and internationally-noted Barrington Farm centre for adults with learning difficulties but fizzing creativity - also taking part.

Artists of all descriptions will be throwing open the doors of their workplaces - from purpose-built studios to spare rooms, attics, outhouses, sheds, garages and gardens. See how and where art is made from King's Lynn to Yarmouth and from Cromer to Diss and all rural, urban and suburban points in between,

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This far-sighted and multi-sited exhibition will spill across oil paintings, sculpture, watercolours, prints (etchings, linocuts, lithographs and screenprints), collage, assemblages quilts, baskets, ceramics, jewellery, photographs, textiles and installations. And almost certainly more besides.

Festival director Jonathan Holloway says: “If, like me, you enjoy going behind the scenes to find out how things are inspired, designed and made, Norfolk Open Studios is a dream come true.

“Not only do the artists welcome you into their own artistic worlds, but you can browse and buy, commission new work and find out exactly how they do what they do. It's an opportunity you won't find anywhere else.”

The aim, then, is to share a passion for art - and also to provide buying opportunities and handy pegs for many spin-off parties!

For instance, featured artist Antonia Soto - of The Forge, Oulton Street, near Aylsham - will launch her open studio stint with a garden bring-your-own picnic a week on Saturday evening, and end with a grand closing party a fortnight later featuring “Fire Works” orchestrated by the Splinter Art Group.

All this week and next, in the run-up to the studios' opening, we are highlighting the work of particular participating artists, but today we offer a selective sampler to illustrate the depth and breadth of the creativity on offer.

Given the wild wonderland of East Anglia at this spring minute, and all through the magical month of May, Watton artist Heather Ann Graham's focus on the Green Man in high-fired stoneware figures and garden features is especially topical.

There are hints of the warmth and rich colours of Africa and India in the work of Stalham's Dennis Hales. He turns local timber into bowls, boxes and wall pieces which are then gilded, textured or decorated with water dyes.

A pattern of eastern exotica may also be traced through the dyed, woven and printed textile art of Norwich's June Croll. Her glowing work ranges from cobweb-fine hand-woven silk to translucent panels and hangings.

Ceramicist June Gentle produces both abstract and figurative pieces - mostly using the oriental raku process - her elegant and elongated female figures appearing as a cross between attendants in an ancient Cretan tomb and 1960s Biba models.

Long-lost Mediterranean worlds may be referenced in bronze and marble pieces by the veteran sculptor Colin Miller. But the Blakeney artist, who roams at will between abstraction and representation, also celebrates his English - and specifically East Anglian roots - in works in slate, wood and stone.

The influences of Castle Acre's Arturo Limbo hail from both East Anglia and the Far East - as befits a cutting-edge artist raised in south-east Asia and now residing in our region. Hempstead's Mike Thody also ranges far and wide in terms of styles and media - producing John Piper-like paintings in oil, watercolour and pastel and site-specific carved wooden sculptures.

And the bright, bold and brilliant semi-abstract paintings, prints and drawings of Ditchingham's Dom Theobald contain motifs that might stem from Pop Art or Aboriginal rock paintings.

Such wild exploration seems especially fitting seeing that he lives and works in part of the former home of the swashbuckling Victorian adventurer and novelist Henry Rider Haggard.

t Free fully-illustrated directories for Norfolk Open Studios 2008 can be ordered on 01603 877750 or via info@nnfestival.org.uk (or, easiest of all, downloaded at www.nnfestival.org.uk/openstudios). Please note that opening times vary.

t For a brochure with full listings of all festival events from until May 17, phone 01603 877750 or visit www.nnfestival.org.uk. To book tickets call 01603 766400.