Strangford on a still morning

Strangford Lough with artist Ann Smyth

All photos by Ann Smyth unless otherwise indicated

Today’s guest on the Creative Places and Faces podcast is Ann Smyth. Ann is an International Stained Glass Artist living and working in Northern Ireland with over 40 years experience in her field.
Ann works from a beautiful rural studio situated on the shores of Strangford Lough in Co Down. Her work captured the imagination of the BBC amongst many others.

After many years of working on large scale architectural commissions for churches and public buildings, Ann is now channelling all of her experience into creating small, beautifully crafted pieces of stained glass art for the home – and unique handcrafted pieces of jewellery full of meaning and symbolism. Thanks so much for joining us, Ann.

Ann Smyth Thank you for having me.

Strangford lough with artist Ann Smyth donkeys by water
Strangford lough donkeys by water

Photo by Deargdoom57

Strangford Lough with artist Ann Smyth

Jackie De Burca: It’s a pleasure. So you’re currently living and working in Strangford Lough, which is an absolutely stunning part of Northern Ireland. You weren’t born there though. Where were you born and when, Ann?

Ann Smyth No, I wasn’t born there. I was born in Cheshire over in England, but my family moved to Northern Ireland when I was only two years old, back in 1960. That’s giving my age away, isn’t it? Basically we moved due to my father’s work. He was working with the Irish linen industry at that time. So yes. So that’s how I came to be in Northern Ireland.

St Anne's Cathedral Belfast by Ann Smyth
St Anne’s Cathedral Belfast by Ann Smyth

Jackie De Burca: Okay. And where were you living initially when you moved over from England?

Ann Smyth We actually lived in Bangor, still in County Down where I am now. It’s a small, well actually it’s got quite large now, seaside town, so it was lovely, right on the sea, which was always fab.

Jackie De Burca And that was obviously the environment of your childhood. Do you feel that environment had any impact, did it stay with you even subconsciously, Ann?

Ann Smyth Well, I think, I would say yes,

it’s what gave me my absolute love for the sea – I always feel like I need to be near the sea. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always been close to the sea.

I was brought up there and obviously that formed who I am. I can’t think of anything really, you know, there wasn’t any particular thing about Bangor that inspired what I do now, but certainly, yes, just growing up there being in that seaside environment has formed a lot of who I am.

Strangford Lough Ann Smyth stained glass moon sun catcher
Stained Glass and Crystal Crescent Moon Sun Catcher £28.50

Jackie De Burca Okay. And did you, did you go anywhere else I mean, obviously living by the sea, was there any need to go on a holiday anywhere else. Do you have any other, you know, younger environments from your memory?

Ann Smyth I think back then, it wasn’t really a thing to have foreign holidays, you know, I think I was about 16 before we had a holiday, I think we went somewhere in Spain. We would have had day trips, you know, to go to places like Tollymore Forest Park in the Mourne Mountains, which was one of my favourites.

We used to do a sort of Easter ritual there. And I remember one year actually, I don’t know how old it was. Mummy had bought me a little Observer’s Book of Wildflowers and I remember trudging around Tollymore. I tried to identify all these lovely wildflowers using my book and that sort of really became a firm favourite. I still have that little book, you know, I usually use it in props now for some of my photographs, but I think that’s what maybe spurred my fascination for flowers and plants and how they grow. And yeah, just so from that point of view that’s certainly affected, I suppose, my creativity if you like.

Tolleymore Strangford Lough with Ann Smyth

Jackie De Burca That’s a gorgeous memory. Do you remember more or less what age you were when you were starting to make art of any sort?

Ann Smyth Well, I think, you know, like all children, you give them a box crayons and they’re happy as Larry. My first firm memory, I think I was probably about six or seven and it was one Christmas, and my Christmas present from Mum and Dad was this lovely little set of poster paints. And they came in these little jars and oh, I was just so beside myself with excitement to get cracking using these. But of course, wasn’t allowed to do anything till after lunch. That particular Christmas, my Daddy was ceremoniously carrying the turkey on a big platter from the kitchen and this platter split in two launching the turkey up the hallway, crashing into the front door. It was still absolutely delicious. But then after lunch I did this little painting of a silhouette of Daddy holding half the plate in each hand with the turkey on the floor. My Mum kept that for years and years, you know, it’s still probably around somewhere in a box of something that I’ve got. Yeah. So I did that, you know, that’s the first time I remember actually creating a finished piece. It was hardly a masterpiece, but yeah, it marked the occasion.

Jackie De Burca And what did your Daddy do you think of it?

Ann Smyth Well, he loved it of course. We had a good giggle for years and years after that.

Jackie De Burca As you grew up, obviously you went later on to university – what age were you when you went over to study in Edinburgh – such a wonderful city. What kind of impact did that have on you?

Edinburgh Ann Smyth stained glass artist

Ann Smyth: I was eighteen. Yes. Full of wonderment arriving in this magical, magical city. Gosh, it was just so special because there was so much culture there, you know, with, these amazing theatres and galleries. And we would go to concerts, and of course, fabulous pubs. And I think, you know, coming from Northern Ireland at that time because there were the Troubles, there were no live events, no concerts you could go to. Certainly, I would never have been allowed to go into Belfast for the evening and it just wasn’t safe.

So it was a huge eye-opener then going into this fabulous, fabulous city. And of course, going to art college itself, being surrounded by likeminded people, you know, all sort of gung ho and really passionate about what we were doing. And of course, it was my first introduction to stained glass as an art form.

When I first went to Edinburgh I had in my head that I wanted to be a textile designer. I don’t know if that maybe came from the fact that my Dad was working in the linen trade and so I was sort of surrounded by that at an early age. But then literally I walked into the stained glass studio at the college and that was me hooked. That’s it. This is all I want to do. Just stained glass.

Jackie De Burca: I can understand that. It’s absolutely stunning.

Now, just to check that my mathematical mind is working correctly. You would have gone over there just to give a time period to the audience. You would have been starting off there in 1976. Is that right?

Ann Smyth: That’s right. Yes. Yes, yeah. What an amazing time.

Jackie De Burca: Okay, fantastic. And then, later on, you did so amazingly well at Edinburgh that you won a travelling scholarship, that resulted in you spending time in the prestigious Judson studios in California. In fact, you were the first woman there that the studios employed. Can you tell us a bit about the whole experience there and the environment?

Ann Smyth: Yes. Absolutely. That was really, really exciting for me. I was actually approached by the owner of Judson Studios. A lovely man, Walter Judson, when I was actually in my final year at art college. I’d been offered a postgraduate year, which I was intending to do.

But then, of course, I was offered this amazing opportunity to go work in his studio so I couldn’t turn that down. And then when I was given the travelling scholarship, that funded my travel to go there. So that was just, you know, perfect. Everything was working out fine. But then, of course, I didn’t realise that I was the only and the first woman to be employed there. So there were a lot of sideways glances. This young 22-year-old arriving, these sort of elderly gentleman who’d been working there for years and years all sort of looking at me like, what are you doing here? So my first day, actually, they had a huge selection of glass to choose from. Gosh, it was like an absolute Aladdin’s cave. I’d never seen such a huge array of glass.

And so they decided on my first day it would be good if I would get to grips with the type of glass that they had and, you know, sort of familiarise myself with it. And they had just had a big shipment of glass come in from France, beautiful mouth-blown glass. So they set me to unpacking this glass, but of course I was only used to handling small English sheets of glass at that stage, which were relatively small and manageable in size. And these sheets of French class were about a meter wide. So I was pulling one out of the crate, it had a tiny little nick at the top and, as I lifted the sheet out, this thing split in two and went right across my wrist. I ended up in A & E my first morning getting six stitches in my wrist.

Ann Smyth: Yes. That was a rather memorable first day.

A baptism by fire. But then I’d been there about two years and then I was made Projects Supervisor, which was sort of basically shop foreman, and that kind of went down like a lead balloon with the old boys in the studio.

But yeah, I worked my way through that. They were a fantastic bunch of people working there. We had quite a melting pot with people from England and Ireland, France, Germany, Iran, Mexico, America and all bringing their own sort of, you know, a wealth of talents to that pot. So it was a really amazing place to work. Plus, I got to work on some really huge projects that I would never have had the opportunity to work on here.

We worked on really large architectural pieces for Las Vegas casinos and big barrel vault domes, as well as, you know, wonderful large church commissions and public buildings. And yes, I got some amazing experience. And also, we did a lot of restoration work then. So I got to work on some Tiffany windows just like, oh, just touching them, like was terrifying.

You know, it was a fabulous, fabulous experience. You know, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was really, really good.

St Malachy's Church, Kilcoo. The Adulterous Wife.
St Malachy’s Church, Kilcoo, Co Down. The Adulterous Wife.

Jackie De Burca It sounds, you know, from your career perspective, it sounds like a massive turning point Ann, to have spent that time there?

Ann Smyth It really was. Yeah. And just, you know, the experience that I gained from it. Yeah. I mean, you can’t learn anything like that just from being at college. You have to be hands-on. And it was just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.

Jackie De Burca Sounds like it. And so you were obviously working really hard. Did you spend much time out and about in the environments surrounding the studios – did you much time to play?

Ann Smyth Obviously I was young so I played quite hard as well as working quite hard. Yeah. I tended to have a lot of my friends who were ex-pats and yeah, I would have spent a lot of time going to the beach and, you know, doing normal sort of California kind of stuff. I did work a lot. I really did love the work. In fact, when I went I only intended staying a couple of years just to gain the experience. But then, of course, I ended up staying eight. I loved the job.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, it’s quite a long time, so you returned to Northern Ireland in 1988. Obviously very well equipped after both your college days and the eight years in Judson’s Studios.

In the early days of being back home, what kind of commissions and work were you doing at that stage, Ann?

Strangford Lough and town from the ferry
Strangford from the ferry

Ann Smyth Well, yeah, when I first moved back, actually, my daughter was born out there in 1987, just the year before, so she was only nine months old when I moved back. And in California at that time, there was no such thing as maternity leave or anything. So I finished work literally a couple of weeks before my daughter was born and then I worked as a freelance stained glass artist when she was only a couple of weeks old.

And I worked for Judson Studios freelance doing design work for them. And I also picked up with another studio, and was doing design work for them. But I really missed home, you know, having a little one. I wanted to be close to family and I thought, well, I’m freelancing anyway, working from home, I could do this from Ireland. So I chatted with the people I was freelancing for and they said no problem at all. So I moved home. I loved being back home and yes, in those first few years, I just continued freelancing for Judson’s and also for another studio in the Los Angeles area.

And then I was approached by an old school teacher to create a memorial window for her father in a church in Donaghadee, which wasn’t far from where I was living in Bangor.

And so then I had to go in search of a studio to work with, you know, a local studio to actually make the window for me. So I did the design work, took that round to a few different studios, just getting a feel for whether or not, you know, I felt a fit, and obviously to check the quality of their work. And that’s when I came across CWS Design, who are based in Lisburn, and we really, really hit it off. I loved the work they were doing. I showed them previous work that I’d done and they loved what I was doing. So, yeah, they made that first window for me. And then actually that was the beginning of a really good relationship. I’m still working with them now.

And so I do a lot of their design work for them on big projects. They make the windows up for me and do all the installations. So, yes, that worked out. That worked out really well. So I am still working with them and I was quite lucky.

Jay feather pendant Ann Smyth
Jay feather pendant Ann Smyth

Jackie De Burca So that was quite lucky, Ann. First of all, that you were able to get back to your roots, obviously, you know, with your little daughter at that stage. And secondly, that you had such a brilliant connection with CWS as once you found each other on your own turf if you like?

Ann Smyth Yes, absolutely. No. It worked out very well and close enough to be easy for me to, you know, go and select the glass for a particular job and, you know, check in at each stage. Yes. So it’s been a really, really good, good relationship.

Jackie De Burca Brilliant, brilliant, Moving on to 2012, obviously what I assume would have been a very exciting moment in your life, you were approached by the BBC. What actually triggered this and what was the project that came out of this, Ann?

Ann Smyth Yes, well they actually got in touch with me in 2012, we were just getting ready to open the Titanic building because in 2012 it was 100 years, I think, since the Titanic sank. Not many people would celebrate something sinking. But, yes, we do.

Yes, basically what the BBC wanted was to create a series of, I think they call them identity trails. They wanted to celebrate local traditional crafts that would have been used in the making of the Titanic and, of course, stained glass was one of them because they had lots of stained glass windows on the Titanic. So basically, they’d seen a window that I did for Belfast City Hall, their centenary window which featured the Titanic. And so they wanted me to create a window in the style of the type of thing that would have been, you know, on Titanic.

 So they commissioned this.

Ann Smyth So I had to actually make two windows because I had to have one that they could film complete which featured the BBC Northern Ireland logo in the centre of it, a heraldic-type thing. And then also they wanted to film it in various stages. So I had to have one that, you know, I was leading up and another one that was partially cut. And so, yeah, it was great. And good exposure as well, because they played that for over a year. Usually just before the news or the end of EastEnders or something like that.

There wasn’t any work as a result of it, you know. But people would pop into the studio and say, oh, you’re that lady off the telly. It was just kind of strange.

It was a good opportunity. It was a nice commission to work on.

Jackie De Burca Fantastic. And the environment that you’re obviously working from at the moment. It is really stunning. Of course, there are a lot of stunning places in Ireland. But this is really, really stunning.

And I can imagine as a creative person, I can really imagine how inspirational that is for you. Can you describe Strangford Lough cos lots of our audience, Ann,  won’t have been there so far?

Ann Smyth Oh. Oh, my goodness. Yes.

Well, as you say, it’s absolutely beautiful. Its a very magical place actually and we’ve got everything here, really. You know, we’ve got beautiful, beautiful countryside. We’ve got mountains, beautiful beaches, rivers, it is really, really special. And of course, being in Ireland, it’s so green. Yeah. It is beautiful. Really, really lovely. This whole area actually around

Strangford Lough Ann Smyth-Scenic route from the Studio to home
Scenic route from the Studio to home

Strangford Lough is just steeped in history and folklore and what have you. We’ve got some really amazing historical sites – beautiful old ruined churches. And there’s one actually not far from where I live. It’s called Struell Wells. It’s beautiful, it is actually wells. There is this gorgeous, quirky little building, almost looks like a little beehive. And it has water in it – it is actually one of the wells – it has a river running through it. It was actually I think built around this stream that is flowing through this little secluded valley. And apparently St. Patrick is said to have preached there back in the 5th century and the waters are believed to have restorative healing powers.

And people used to make a pilgrimage to the area and then in Victorian times, they built a couple of little small stone buildings over the water that were sort of like bathing baths, one for men and one for women. So you can still see that there. But it’s just a lovely, lovely spot. You can hear the water flow quite quickly. So you can hear the sort of lovely bubbling of the water and you think, oh, my goodness, St. Patrick was here. And it’s very, very special.

Jackie De Burca And have you tried the water or anybody in your family or your friends in terms of, you know, do you feel it does have healing properties?

Ann Smyth Well, no, I haven’t. I don’t know if it has or not, but I’m sure lots of folk around here would tell you that it does.

Bluebells Castle Ward Strangford Lough
Bluebells Castle Ward Strangford Lough

Jackie De Burca OK. So the area. You know, it seems not only is it beautiful, but it’s also quite magical. And I’m sure this kind of magic, you must feel it and see it visually as the seasons change. How does it look? How does this affect you and your creativity?

Ann Smyth Oh, well, absolutely. I mean, it is because, you know, we’re in the countryside, obviously, you get the amazing, colour changes going on. Even now, in the middle of August, the colour has started to change already in the trees, there are some beautiful oranges and what have you coming through.

But there’s just a very, very special light here in Strangford Lough. And I don’t know if it’s maybe because we’re surrounded by water. You know, we’re right on the Lough shore. And so you get, you know, beautiful light reflecting off the water all the time and we get the most amazing sunsets and sunrises. For me, that’s very, very special because obviously light is so very, very important to my work. It is the main aspect of what I do.

Jackie De Burca Have you seen this type of light anywhere else that you can remember, Ann, or do you think it’s just really special to that area?

Ann Smyth No, I think it is special to this area. There’s actually quite a lot of artists living around this area and I think they would all say the same thing. There’s just something very, very special about the light here. Very unique.

Strangford Lough Ann Smyth Morning commute
Strangford Lough Ann’s Morning commute

Jackie De Burca So going back to your own sort of path, your career path. You were working for many, many years on large scale architectural commissions. And now you’re starting to channel or you have been channelling for a while your wealth of experience, into creating small, beautifully crafted pieces of stained glass for the home and jewellery.

You’ve mentioned, obviously, that not only are they beautiful, but they’re also packed with symbolism and meaning. This was quite a large shift in the type of work you’re doing. Was this a conscious decision, Ann, or how did this happen?

Ann Smyth   You know, it was really sort of a needs must thing initially in that, you know, we had that major recession in 2007 ish or roundabout then anyway.

And that saw my larger architectural commissions pretty much dry up overnight. They dropped off first from the US, the work I was doing there because obviously recession hit there first. So the US commissions dried up and then maybe six months later, my Irish ones sort of dried up as well. So it was a case of, you know, I’m not going to stop doing what I absolutely love doing because it’s who I am. So I thought, no, I’m going to start creating smaller more affordable, more accessible pieces.

So rather than somebody having to commission a window for their home, they can just buy something small to maybe hang in a window and still get that feeling of coloured light coming through glass and still experience that same magic. And then, I never set out to make jewellery at all, but it was just one those sort of little happy accidents, I suppose.

Butterfly wing pendant
Butterfly wing pendant.  Photo Bradley Quinn

In the studio one day, you know, after a sort of busy day, I found this absolutely gorgeous butterfly …beautiful and dead, but really, really lovely. I can’t throw that out, you know, because it was just so beautiful – the colours and everything. And I’ve always had a fascination for relics and reliquaries. You know, when you visit old churches in Italy or France, you see these beautiful, beautifully crafted objects that’ll maybe have a little bit of St. Francis’s robe or, you know, just some special relic that’s thought to be very precious. And, you know, it’s then put in a little glass file with something decorative around. I thought, you know, I’ll try doing that with this. And so I set it between two bits of glass, sealed the edge and thought, you know, that kind of works. And I started making jewellery, and not just with butterflies, but with other things that I found in nature, little feathers and little flowers that I would press and put those in glass.

I just loved all the symbolism around especially things like feathers, because people here have this very strong belief that if they find a white feather, then a loved one is close by. People will find feathers and carry them around with them. Actually, quite often people will give me feathers that they’ve maybe been carrying in a wallet and ask me to put those into glass so that they can have them out on show. So, yes, that’s how that whole thing came about.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I didn’t know actually. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

I pick up feathers and I have done for quite a long time, but I normally look around to check that nobody’s looking at me.

So I didn’t realise that actually around that area that it’s kind of more acceptable, you know like an acceptable practise if you like.

Strangford Lough Ann Smyth White feather
White feather

Ann Smyth Very much so. Yeah. Yeah.

Jackie De Burca That’s really interesting.

And your use of butterflies amongst so many other gifts from nature that you use, the butterfly symbolises freedom, as I know you know, Ann. Does your jewellery creation allow for a special type of freedom between you and nature and the symbols that surround you?

Ann Smyth It does. Yes, in that it’s pushed me in a direction where I’m starting to actually incorporate nature as opposed to an interpretation of nature.

So I’m taking a little bit of nature and using that as the art which is sort of, you know, like a new direction, starting with that one butterfly piece. And the butterflies for me, not only symbolise freedom, but they’re just this amazing symbol of renewal. When you think this little hairy grub turns into this gorgeous, beautiful butterfly. And I just love that whole thing about renewal. And so for me, it’s a personal thing because this is like a new journey. You know, even where I live now, it’s all new.

And so it’s like this is another chapter in my life if you like. So it’s got a lot of personal meaning as well, using the butterflies.

Jackie De Burca So to some extent, Ann, it’s about transformation, is that right?

Ann Smyth It is. Yes. Good word, very much that. Transformation, by using these in the jewellery, it’s like, you know, preserving that little bit of nature and trying to create some small little treasure with it that will last and go on rather than be blown away.

Jackie De Burca In a way, from what you’re saying, it’s like as if this kind of shift in your work and what you’re doing and how your integrating pieces of nature, it’s like it’s almost mirroring the transformation that you’re having, that you’ve mentioned about the area and so on, isn’t it?

Strangford with Ann Smyth Dappled sunlight on my morning commute
Dappled sunlight on my morning commute

Ann Smyth Oh, very much so. Yes. No, I think that’s exactly what it is. I’m just delighted that other people appreciate it as well. I’m able to use that as part of the work that I create.

Jackie De Burca And when you’re out and about in nature, do you feel there are like let’s call them angels or nature spirits around you?

Ann Smyth Well, I think I’d be maybe a little more inclined to say that I feel I’m surrounded maybe by a special kind of energy and magic and more the spirit of nature rather than little nature spirits.

Yes. Although I think that probably quite a lot of people around here will tell you there are fairies and all the rest of it.

Jackie De Burca But you’re not meant to talk about the fairies, are you? Its meant to be bad luck to talk about them?

Ann Smyth And you certainly never cut down a Hawthorn tree.

I can be, like, totally stopped in my tracks like if I’m on my way to the studio and maybe just the way the light’s coming through the trees and, you know, creating beautiful patterns on the pathway or, you know just looking at ferns, the perfect, perfect spiral you get as the ferns are opening up and so for me, that’s the magic where you get almost like a mystical experience from looking at all these beautiful things within nature.

Rape fields Killyleagh
Rape fields Killyleagh

Jackie De Burca I mean you mentioned light. I can imagine is an integral part of all types of creation that you’re working with. And would you say that light is captured or manipulated in your work? How does that affect both the stained glass and the jewellery that you work with?

Ann Smyth Well, well, the light, of course, light is the most important aspect of any stained glass window.

Because of the relationship that exists between the glass and the light, I think that’s what makes it really quite unique amongst the arts. Because with the light you’re dealing with refracted light rather than reflected light. So in that way, I think of stained glass, almost like a sort of atmospheric art, because of the way, you know, you’re using the light and you can manipulate the light with different types of glass. I use a lot of crystals in my work, but also in the colour that you select because colour has a huge effect on your senses and how you feel.

For instance, I did a large window for a hospital chapel when I was out in California and for that, I used a lot of mouth-blown glass, using beautiful deep cool blues, a lot of soft greys just to create that wonderful, soothing, cool, calming atmosphere, which was what was required obviously, in a hospital chapel. You don’t want bright, garish colours screaming at you through the light.

St Jude's Hospital Chapel, Fullerton, California
St Jude’s Hospital Chapel, Fullerton, California. Photo Judson Studios.

By manipulating the amount of light that comes in and the transmission of the light and the vibrance, you know, the sort of vibrations almost of the light and you start creating this atmosphere within an interior.

And then in the smaller pieces that I’m working on now, I use a lot of bevels and I use a lot of crystals. And so then when the light catches those and you get these lovely rainbows dancing on the walls and what have you, I mean, gosh, you know, it’s such a delight – it wakens the inner child in you, if you like, when you see these rainbows on the walls.

The jewellery is different. I think you were asking about that, in that’s using very much reflected light because, for instance, in the butterfly wings, the colour, that I learnt recently, is not from pigment, but is from tiny little scales and the light is bounced off these that creates this wonderful iridescence in them. So that’s using the light in a different way. So one’s using a lot of refracted and then the other is reflected light. But yes, definitely the most important thing in my work is the light.

Jackie De Burca OK. Now, there are so many elements, obviously, that we’ve talked through, the pieces of nature that you take as gifts and incorporate into your work and the use of the white feathers that we’ve talked about.

You have some amazing pieces that I’ve been really enjoying looking at. Would you like to describe some of your signature collection pieces, Ann?

Strangford Lough Castle Ward Studio aka Winterfell
Castle Ward Studio aka Winterfell

Ann Smyth Well, obviously, there’s the jewellery. These pieces I sort of think of as nature’s reliquaries.

And then I do a collection of candle holders and tea light holders using various different types of glass. And then, like I say, these hanging pieces that you can hang in windows. I call this collection Sunshine After the Rain – just really because of the whole sort of transformation thing again and beautiful rainbows coming through the crystals. Yeah, that’s the main collections that I have on the go at present.

Jackie De Burca And we can’t forget to mention the exceptionally wonderful environment that you find yourself to be creating. And talk to us about your studio, Ann.

Ann Smyth studio Castle Ward Studio sign
Castle Ward Studio sign

Ann Smyth Oh, well, I have to pinch myself.

I have an amazing studio in the grounds of Castle Ward, which is a National Trust property. So I’m right on the shores of the Lough and it is beautiful. It’s a bit of an old rambly building.

But the location is quite, quite fabulous. It really is beautiful. So I can just make a cup of tea and take a walk along the shore, get my head cleared and go back to work again, which is very, very special. And actually where my studio is located – it’s down in the old farmyard area. And I share the studio with a painter, Paola Signoretto, an Italian lady. She paints. Obviously we can’t work together at the moment the way things are, so we’re working separately. But on the plus side, it means we have every other weekend off because we can’t both be working together. But no, it’s a very, very special place. And actually, for any Game of Thrones fans, my studio is where they filmed Winterfell.

Jackie De Burca Wow. So, of course, the next question is, do you leave that studio and go somewhere far away or do you actually live close by?

Ann Smyth Oh, no. I am so, so lucky. I used to travel an hour to get there and an hour to get back. I was living in Bangor at that time and I would get to the Quoile River and there’s this lovely little bridge that goes over that. And I would get to this bridge, come over the bridge and just say, oh, this is just so peaceful. And I would feel like I was transported somewhere else. So I thought what am I doing travelling every day, I just want to feel like this all the time. So I sold my house and moved to Strangford Village, which is literally a hop, skip and a jump from the studio. I can walk to my studio or I can cycle in. I just love living here in the village of Strangford. It’s just beautiful. Really, really lovely.

Jackie De Burca That’s fantastic. That’s brilliant. Now let’s talk about inspiration versus connection, because not only are you working there, but you’re living in the same environment. Would you consider that you are more connected with Strangford Lough or inspired by it, or would you even think that you’ve merged with that environment, Ann?

Ann Smyth You know, a lot of people tend to say that they are inspired by the countryside and, yes, of course, I am. But it’s not like I represent these things.

I don’t paint mountains. I don’t paint seascapes, it’s more that I tend to be inspired by a sense of feeling and connection that I have with my surrounding areas and with the light and the water and, you know, this beautiful natural environment. I just definitely feel a true connection with the area and just how it makes me feel, which I think then, you know, comes out in my work.

Strangford Lough Castle Ward My beautiful Studio
Ann’s beautiful studio at Castle Ward

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I can imagine obviously particularly with the light, as you’ve described it earlier on in our chat.

Jackie De Burca It must be so important. Now for those people who, you know, haven’t as yet and maybe would wish very much to go when it’s safe to travel in the future to Strangford Lough. If a friend was coming from abroad and you know when it’s safe to travel. Where would your favourite place for your friend to stay, be in the area?

Ann Smyth But obviously, my house. Strangford’s a very small village. Gosh, I’m not even sure what the population is – its probably only about 500. And so we don’t actually have a hotel as such but plenty of Air B & Bs. We’ve got lovely Air B&Bs and we’ve got some fabulous restaurants. Although it’s tiny. We’ve got, you know, three restaurants, a fabulous pub and there’s a ferry actually, in the village that goes across to the other side of the lough. It only takes about five minutes, goes across to another little town called Portaferry. There is a hotel there. And it’s actually what my chums and I love to do, on a semi-sunny, summery evening, get on the ferry, go across, have a lovely, cool gin and tonic outside the Portaferry Hotel looking over at Strangford and then get back on the ferry again. It’s like you’ve been on your holidays. It really is super.

Jackie De Burca So let’s say you’re out with your chums and you’ve had your lovely G & T and the little boat trip that, you know, makes makes makes you feel like that.

Jackie De Burca Where would you go for a nice meal after that with your friends?

Ann Smyth Well, we’ve actually got a few restaurants. We’ve got one that’s sort of a little more high end called The Artisan, which is more of a fine dining experience, which is fabulous. And that’s only been open a couple of years, actually, but really, really, really good. And the Lobster Pot, which is a firm favourite as well, and has been opened for a long, long time. And that’s a really friendly atmosphere, you know, great food, a lot of local seafood and just always very warm and welcoming Yeah, great spot as well, too. Two very different environments. But both fabulous. Yeah. We’re very, very fortunate here.

The Cuan, Strangford town
The Cuan, Strangford

Also, the Cuan is an old established restaurant with accommodation. It changed ownership earlier in 2020 before lockdown and is currently being completely refurbished and will reopen towards the end of 2020. It will have a restaurant, luxury accommodation and a pizzeria with a wood-fired pizza oven. I’m sure it will be fabulous.

Jackie De Burca That’s brilliant. You mentioned that you have a great bar. Was that singular or plural? You’ve just one very good one. Or is there more?

Ann Smyth Well, now one of the restaurants does have a little sort of bar area within it, but we’ve got one that’s just strictly a pub that’s actually only a couple of doors down from my house. It’s a bit too convenient.

It’s always great craic in there, too.

Jackie De Burca What’s the name of the bar for anybody who visits in the future?

Ann Smyth It’s The Hole in the Wall.

Jackie De Burca An appropriate name, she said.

So it just sounds fantastic there.

What plans do you have? We’re living through very bizarre times as everybody knows. And what plans do you have for the next while? Any new collections on the horizon? Anything that our audience should keep an eye out for?

Ann Smyth Real Pressed Forget me not Flowers pendant necklace
Ann Smyth Real Pressed Forget me not Flowers pendant necklace

Ann Smyth Yeah, it has been very strange because, you know, I’ve had to have the studio closed for quite a while, I was only able to open it again at the end of June. But luckily, I do have some studio space out the back of my house which is sort of like a glorified shed, really but I like to call it my studio. I was able to continue working and I sell online, so, you know, that was great throughout locked down. So at the moment, actually, I’m working on a commission for just a small piece I’m making, that’s going to be heading off to Texas within the next few weeks, hopefully. And then currently, I mean, this time of year, I’m getting ready for Christmas. So creating new things. I know it sounds mad, doesn’t it? You have to start making now. Ready for it, ready for Christmas. So I’m in the throes of getting ready to do that.

Jackie De Burca For the audience who are meeting you, if you like, online and hearing your voice for the first time. You have an Etsy shop which obviously people adore. I can see from your five-star consistent reviews – which for people who don’t know Etsy, basically it’s a 100 per cent. Ann’s shop is absolutely adored by anybody who’s bought.

So what we’ll do, Ann is when we go live with the podcast, which will be in September of 2020, we’ll have a transcription of our chat and so on.

We’ll also put the Etsy shop for our audience to see and to be able to go and hopefully buy some lovely Christmas gifts or for gifts for any time of the year.

Ann Smyth Fabulous. Etsy is great. You know, it’s worked out really well for me, like I say, especially throughout lockdown because it means I can ship something, if somebody wants to buy a gift, I can ship it directly to the recipient of that gift. And yeah, cuts out a lot of problems for lots of people. So, it worked out very well. So I’d really appreciate that. Thank you.

Jackie De Burca We’ll be doing that obviously. So listen, Ann, it was absolutely wonderful. I’ve got Strangford Lough now, it’s up the top of my list for different days if you like. Yes, just the fact that there are so many artists there as well.

I mean, I have one or two people that I have scheduled. One definitely is based in Strangford Lough. But I’m not surprised at all that there are so many artists in the area. I’m told from how you’ve described it today, you know.

Ann Smyth I think we’re all pulled to this special area.

Jackie De Burca So you’re very lucky to be there. And thank you so much for your time today. And best of luck with everything now.

Ann Smyth  Well, thank you very much indeed for inviting me on, Jackie. It’s been a pleasure to chat to you. Thanks a lot.

To see Ann’s beautiful collections head over to her Etsy Shop

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