As part of its 25th birthday celebrations, Highlights catches up with Karen Babayan, who curated its annual Contemporary Craft Tour from 2010 to 2018.
Serendipity brought artist, writer and curator Karen Babyan from Leeds to Cumbria and a role with Highlights, she says.
Her husband Chris Taylor, Professor in Fine Art at the University of Leeds, has Cumbrian roots and he and Karen and their two daughters had often visited the county.
They had fallen in love with a house in Appleby and decided to make the move across the Pennines when Karen heard that Highlights, which had its HQ in the town at that time, was recruiting a Contemporary Craft Tour Officer.
“I was working freelance as an artist and also for Leeds College of Art,” says Karen. “I’d been working as a curator throughout my career and the post seemed a perfect fit.”
When Karen was appointed in 2009 by Highlights’ then co-directors, Barbara Slack and Rosie Cross, funding was already in place forThrift & Thread: Contemporary Heirlooms, a solo exhibition by textile artist Mandy Pattullo. Mandy examined the theme of recycling by remaking heritage quilts that were too worn to be exhibited into garments and small pieces. It was just the kind of show Karen herself would have chosen, she says.
“I hit the ground running as I set about finding new venues. I’d thought Leeds was in the north but it was in the south so far as Highlights was concerned and one of the best parts of my job was getting to know Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland.”
Meeting Highlights’ promoters was fantastic, says Karen, but the tour also presented the challenge of leading audiences through an exhibition in village halls and other Highlights venues where many regular activities took place.
“In one or two instances, promoters pulled out because they realised how intrusive the tour would be but others came on board whole-heartedly.”
Working part-time on a ‘flexi’ basis for her first year in post, Karen went on to curate the tour as a freelance rather than a Highlights’ employee. As the tour’s momentum grew, she could cast her net wider, she says. Miniature Worlds, in 2013, which celebrated work that was “miniature but monumental in its ambition”, featured 42 artists from the UK, Germany, Japan and the USA.
Paperscissorsbook in 2016 showcased the best of contemporary paper-cut and artists’ books through the work of 20 artists from the UK, India, Japan, Italy and France. Venues included St Thomas’ Church Hall in Stanhope, County Durham, Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham, Northumberland and The Old Courthouse in Shap, Cumbria, where a selected display complemented the building’s use as a library.
One of the exhibitors, Japanese book and paper artist Mayumi Arakawa, gained funding to come to the UK, with Highlights funding her accommodation and the fees for her workshops in local schools.
Luminosity in 2017 celebrated light though glass, sculptural textiles, film, neon and other media.
Craft is often unfairly ranked below fine art in the art world hierarchy, says Karen. “The artists I chose worked across those bounds.”
The tours Karen curated ran from the end of April to early July and sometimes later to fit in with village hall schedules. The exhibitions took place mainly at weekends, sometimes extending for a day either side.
“We had to remake the exhibition from scratch at every venue,” says Karen. “We had lots of plinths and beautifully-made exhibition stands which could transform a church, for example, where we couldn’t hang work on the walls. People sometimes think a gallery is not for them but that isn’t the case in a hall owned by the community.”
Karen had a County Durham-based “dream team” of craft tour technicians, Jon Shepperd and Karen Beeney, employing freelance technicians after they’d moved to Cornwall.
“The tour’s ambition was amazing,” says Karen. “I was very stretched but I was pleased to do it for the artists and for communities who deserved to have the best art I could find.”
Karen, who is Anglo-Armenian, was born and brought up in the Armenian community of Tehran in Iran. Her family left Iran for the UK when Karen was aged 16, two months before the Islamic Revolution.
Her artistic practice explores identity and displacement through painting, photography and multi-disciplinary works and in 2016 she was named C-Art Cumbrian Artist of the Year for her wall hanging Perse.
Her major Swallows and Armenians project illustrates how an Anglo-Armenian family, the Altounyans, formed the inspiration for the Walker family in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. This July the project takes on a new guise in a world première operetta performed by Cumbria Opera Group, with an original score by Karen and Chris’s elder daughter Persia Babayan-Taylor, in the gardens of historic Battlebarrow House overlooking Appleby’s Norman Castle keep.
Karen’s swan song as Highlights’ Contemporary Craft Tour Officer was Craft+Conflict in 2018, the centenary of the end of World War One. The devastating impact of war on individuals, communities and culture and subsequent refugee crises and the conflicting views within farming and conservation were among the tour’s themes and the exhibits included pieces by world-renowned Cumbrian artist Conrad Atkinson and Cumbria-based Paul Scott, along with work for sale crafted by refugees supported by the Made51 UNHCR project.
“It was probably my most ambitious tour,” says Karen. “It meant a lot to me because I was displaced due to political events and grieved for years for my country and extended family.”
Karen left Highlights at the end of 2018 and the craft tour is now on hold. She continues to be involved with Highlights, helping with Appleby events and running Appleby Remote Cinema.
Three of Karen’s works are on show in Shifting Perspectives at Leeds Art Gallery, exploring representations of people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage, until the end of October and she is midway through her first novel, set during the tumultuous events of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey.
“My Highlights craft tour role was incredibly rewarding and I made friends for life,” says Karen. “But my Swallows and Armenians project had just started and I needed to concentrate on my own practice.”