Upcoming conference showcases Celtic artistry and scholarship

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ANDOVER, N.Y. – Many Pagans have a connection to the ancient Celtic cultures that pre-existed in Europe and parts of Asia some 30 centuries ago. The cultures extended from Ireland to Spain and then east through central Europe to modern day Turkey.

Individuals from various traditions such as Druidry, Witchcraft, and Wicca draw spiritual inspiration from arts and stories of Celtic culture that still survives along the so-called “Celtic fringe” of Europe; and whose modern host nations, along with Celt-Iberia, were the origins of migrants that came to well-known destinations like the United States, Canada, and Australia but also to lesser known places like modern-day Argentina and Cuba. With them, of course, came the art and music of Celtic lands that still fascinates.

After some 20 years of planning, the first International Conference for Celtic Artists will soon be held on the third annual International Day of Celtic Art. Craftspersons and scholars of Celtic art will converge on the small, rural town of Andover, New York, just north of the Pennsylvania border and a couple of hours south of the Canadian border, June 7th-9th to celebrate and explore Celtic arts.

The gathering will bring together many artists who have never met face to face. It will also serve as an opportunity for scholars from North America, as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom, to come together and discuss new research on ancient artwork.

Logo designed by Philadelphia based artist Ed Rooney [Courtesy]

Andover is an unlikely destination for rich discussions of Celtic art. The story of its selection for the epicenter for the International Day of Celtic Art is, however, a personal one.

In 1958, a young artist, William “Scotty” MacCrea, was hired as the art teacher at the combined public elementary, middle and high school, Andover Central School. MacCrea was from a Gaelic-speaking Canadian family of Scottish origin. He taught as well as created art that included Celtic elements. Over thirty-one years of teaching and mentoring artists, his infectious enthusiasm for Celtic artistry spread across Andover. MacCrea, now 86, will be one of the presenters at the conference.

Macrae’s legacy will be presented by a former student covering the fifty years of the growth of Celtic art in the town because of MacCrea’s championing of the artform which has produced an exceptionally strong local appreciation and tradition.

The International Day of Celtic Art was first celebrated in 2017. The day is the result of a group of enthusiasts who began online conversations almost 20 years ago. The day was selected for the Christian St. Columba (Columbkille in Scots), who was born in Ireland and gained the respect but not conversion of King Bridei, leader of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, in the modern region of Inverness-Loch Ness, Scotland. He is the Catholic patron saint of bookbinders.

The artistry that is covered in the scholarship and by the artisans will be geographically broader than just Ireland and Scotland, and the time period extending from pre-Christian artwork to modern interpretations of Celtic designs.

The Celtic designs are familiar to many Pagans and polytheists. It consists of the characteristic knotwork and spirals as well as the interlaced ribbons that construct stylized animal motifs. These have become emblematic of the Celtic culture that survived Romanization in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is also characteristic of the surviving Breton, Cornish and Manx traditions. The northern regions of the Spain and Portugal have these Celt-Iberian traditions and imagery as well, particularly the Spanish areas of Asturias and Galicia.

A work in progress by Chicago artist Michael Carroll. Carroll will be presenting an overview of his work at the conference and teaching a three-hour course titled, Key Patterns by Eye and Hand. [Courtesy]

The Celtic art form reached it golden age sometime between the 7th to 10th centuries CE. It has undergone numerous resurgences such as the Celtic revivalism of the 19th century and the current revival that began some 40 years ago. It has certainly gained attention among Pagans with practices focused on Celtic spirituality; and over the course of the last three decades gained increased mainstream popularity.

Academic lectures will occur throughout the event, but the main keynote speech will be by Irish scholar Dr. Donncha MacGabhann who will present “A Magnificent Obsession; An Artist’s Response to the Book of Kells.” Additional lectures will cover the gamut of Celtic art research and history from Pictish stone monuments, arts in the Celtic diaspora as well as updates on restorations and Illumination methods.

The upcoming event will be crafts-centered, as well as academic. There will also be workshops from practicing artists on Celtic knot-working, contemporary embroidery and metalwork. The weekend will provide an opportunity to strengthen practice and appreciation of Celtic artistry.

As Mr. Michael Carroll, a Chicago based calligrapher notes, “There has never been a better time to be a Celtic artist.” Carroll is a master of illumination in the traditional Irish Celtic style most often associated with the 8th Century manuscript, the Book of Kells.

The organizers comment that, “Celtic art is being created around the world. Its makers are as varied as the mediums in which they work – some working in very traditional mediums and styles, while others are taking their work into new technological formats and applications.”

The International Day of Celtic Art is an opportunity to explore the new incarnations of Celtic artistry in both modern and classical forms.

Wall hanging by Scottish fiber artist Ruth Black of Inverness. [Courtesy]

The event will take place on and around the town center at Walker Metalsmiths Celtic Jewelry owned by organizer and master craftsman, Steve Walker, who became interested in Celtic art reportedly through bagpipes. His interest in Celtic art spans almost five decades and includes an MFA in metalworking.

The website is somewhat sparse but clear. Organizers do note that presentations and gallery are free to the public but there are paid registrations for $100 that include food and other events. Discounts are available for youth and students. There are also additional registrations for specific classes.

The organizers hope that individuals around the world will help celebrate Celtic art even if they are unable to visit Andover during the festivals. They note, “Wear your Celtic jewelry, clothing and accessories prominently. Display your artwork with pride. If you are a collector, this is a good day to brag. If you want to be a collector, this is a good day to go shopping!”