Sea change: reinvention and repurposing of a creative mind!

Bronwen Gwillim: jeweller, artist, sustainability champion, forager, and wildlife enthusiast, landed on the shores of Pembrokeshire’s Southwestern tip and entrance to Milford Haven Waterway three years ago. With husband Bim, she bought one of the lifeboat cottages on the Angle Peninsula, a charming but wild location that is often cut off by high tides, but which has given her the creative home she has always dreamed of. She can hardly believe her luck, but this ‘sea change’ is well-deserved.

Bronwen outside her vintage caravan workshop

There is a great deal of irony in Bronwen’s current location, home of the latest phase in a long and fascinating creative career. On the one hand she lives in a small, rural community based on pristine coastline, alive with migratory birds and edible goodies such as seaweed, sea beets, samphire, sea purslane, cockles, oysters, and mussels as well as a prolific supply of mushrooms in the field by her house. On the other hand, just across the water lies the heavy presence of industry in the form of the Milford Haven oil refinery with oil tankers lined up just offshore, and power stations. The juxtaposition of these two environments (one the petro-chemical source of her raw materials, the other her idyllic, nature-infused home) is striking but also lends a powerful sub-text to Bronwen’s craft; jewellery made from discarded and found waste plastic.
A few examples of Bronwen's unique pieces
Bronwen’s history as an artist began with a study of fine art at Goldsmiths University London followed by teacher training. From there, she spent the next few years facilitating and empowering others to ‘make’ by running workshops for children, pensioners, and Somali refugees at Oxford House in partnership with the Hackney Scrap Project. She also taught during residencies in schools; a plethora of creative activity but mainly focused on the creativity of others rather than her own.
Samples and inspiration
Then came a change in focus. She started making jewellery with scrap copper, brass and found things. A jewellery making City & Guilds course honed her jewellery making skills but highlighted a problem with visual perception known as ‘aphantasia,’ a relatively unstudied phenomenon where the sufferer is unable to visualise imagery. As a maker, this created some issues with planning, designing, and actualising her pieces. She had to essentially ‘reverse engineer’ each one by allowing it to simply evolve from the materials she was using, and then documenting the design, the plan and the imagery, and then the preparatory notes – the precise opposite of other students on the course. This atypical approach served her well however, as the results were wonderfully organic, fluid and had an unstudied charm unlike anything presented by her peers.
Brooch made with cut, drilled and engraved plastic
A desire to make bigger things saw Bronwen attending Camberwell College of Arts where she learned metalwork, silversmithing, welding, forging, working with big hammers and making lots of noise! Weekends were spent at Greenwich market selling her makes and where she was spotted by several designers including Margaret Howell for whom she produced a collection. The experience was intense but also intensely rewarding.
Happy workplace, happy view!
Marriage, children and a move to Bristol all followed and while her husband was suffering from a serious illness, there came the realisation that a ‘proper job’ was needed in order to support the family. Bronwen drove a double-decker bus as a community art space, running art workshops at traveller’s sites and estates on the outskirts of Bristol. She ran ACAN (Arts and Communities Action Network) before working for Southwest Arts (now the Arts Council). A move then to Somerset in the 2000s, and a continuation of her creative journey with the purchase of a large house; a major creative project with studios set up on the ground floor for teaching.
A gorgeous pub a short walk away - bliss!
A huge, creative career had continued along a path of building communities through teaching. Bronwen worked with dementia patients in hospitals using creativity for people finding difficulty in engaging. She trained a team of volunteers at Southmead Hospital, Bristol to deliver activities that facilitated meaningful conversations and, in recognition of this important work, was invited to teach nurses her techniques – groundbreaking work. She felt absolutely passionate about teaching and still does, but what she really craved at that time was a return to making.
Raw materials - including 'community recycling'
With the onset of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, the community-based work stopped and Bronwen began to think about a return to her own work of making jewellery. A breast cancer diagnosis further confined her to ‘base’ and at a particularly low time, she dusted off her old jewellery tools and, using interior design skills that were part of her hospital work, she made a big bold necklace from hospital corridor plastic samples. Feeling that the piece was a bit too ‘out there’ for most, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that her friends absolutely loved it. She made more and signed up to do Craft Festival in Bovey Tracey and that was the start of the latest phase in her creative career. 
This is how it all starts!
Initially, the plastics that Bronwen sourced came from light industry in Bristol such as sign makers or building materials suppliers. She learned about different types of plastics, their properties, qualities, the effects that could be achieved, and how to work with them. Finished pieces look nothing like plastic – they have a different quality, retaining many of the surface scratches and textures but losing their shine and undergoing a metamorphosis into something quite different.   
Surface scratches add to the textural quality of each piece
Three years ago, Bronwen and her husband bought one of the lifeboat cottages in Angle, Pembrokeshire. Originally built to house the lifeboatmen, their cottage is the only one permanently lived in with the others all second homes – an increasingly problematic situation in Wales (and other parts of the UK) where second homes and holiday homes have priced locals out of the housing market and adversely affected communities particularly in rural areas. There was no longer the access to industrial waste, but the wild Atlantic throws a plethora of discarded plastic – mostly from the fishing industry - right onto the beach where Bronwen is often to be found, battling the elements and foraging for her raw materials.
The beach is a forager's delight and full of inspiration
With views over the bay from the front window of the house, and across the garden and fields from the back, this small corner of the world is stunning and idyllic and, as I drove down the road, even with the oil refinery to my right, I could get a sense of what drew the couple to this place. On a windy grey day in late October, it feels immensely exciting and grounding just to be there.
The juxtaposition of environments
After a lunch of mushroom soup made with wild foraged mushrooms and homemade sourdough bread, we ventured outside to explore the workshop – a rescued caravan of some vintage – the veggie plot, and the shoreline where a curlew landed, right on cue with it’s instantly recognisable call. Browsing the sea vegetables growing in abundance, we chatted about the rugged and everchanging seascape. When the tide is out, you can walk across to the opposite shore and then over fields to Fresh Water West, one of the top surf beaches in Wales (and, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, the burial place of Dobby the elf). It is also the best site for plastic foraging with the beach exposed to the Atlantic weather and currents. 
Grouping pieces
The jewellery pieces crafted from the mix of fishing crates, rope, and netting as well as plastics donated by the local community (I did wonder if Bronwen had become Angle’s unofficial plastic waste recycling centre at which she raised a slightly wry eyebrow), are influenced by the environment: the boats resting on the mud at low tide; abundant cockles freely foraged and eaten; pebbles and rocks; the sky, sea and rolling landscape. She cuts, shapes, and forms each piece by hand, combining it with industrial waste plastic, recycled silver, and resins into which she mixes her own waste plastic dust. Each piece develops organically with two main drivers: the material itself and what you can do with it; and the place she lives and what she can find.
Blue and stone
All are bold in shape, some brightly coloured, others more muted, each one unique and evolving through a process of collection and translation with no clear end state. Each invites you to pick it up and handle it, turning it over and trying to make sense of the heaviness in its appearance compared with the lightness in its weight. Bronwen fashions individual elements and then groups them together, building a picture of what it might become before deciding on the final piece. My personal favourites are the grey and blue hues so redolent of stone and water. Another collection is entitled ‘India’ and incorporates buff earth tones and orange, yellow and green, the surface of each marked with the scratches from months or years in the tumbling sea.
To Bronwen, sustainability is essential, but she wonders at the ‘newness’ of the term. Her father, a boat builder from Machynlleth in North Wales, always collected materials that might be useful demonstrating that the instinct for sustainability is an old one that used to be taken for granted. It is only relatively recently that many societies decided that new is best and began to throw useful things away. Now, saying “I’m sustainable” is making a statement when it should just be a continuation. This recognition is so important to her: "we can all see that the planet is in crisis and that it’s all our fault." 
Concept and potential
Bronwen believes that craft, as a whole, is valued and feels a glimmer of hope that people are beginning to think differently about how they spend their money, the objects that can be recycled or repurposed rather than thrown away and making things last. On a more personal note, making gives her a feeling of calm – the rhythm of working with her hands, sawing plastic, bending silver, and hammering metal. The repetition has a meditative quality; the mind wanders in a calm, reflective way, generating ideas and soothing the soul. She believes that we all have innate creativity however it manifests. Bread baking, gardening, cooking or arts and crafts; all are an expression of who we are, where we walk, where our journey is taking us, our personalities, and our stories.
A student piece using stamps to embellish a pendant

We're so happy that Bronwen continues to combine her passion for teaching with making her one-off pieces of jewellery and she has also embraced the online environment, a necessity through Covid lockdowns, producing a wonderful online, on-demand course that we are very proud to host at CraftCourses. If you want to learn with Bronwen, you can purchase her course: Making jewellery from waste plastic with Bronwen Gwillim and enjoy making your own sustainable pieces in the comfort of your own home. With 8 modules and over 40 individual videos, this course will teach you all the skills you need to get started in making beautiful pieces of jewellery from waste plastic. 

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