Here’s an interview I did for the Autumn 2016 issue of Woodcarver’s Gazette – click here: Woodcarvers gazette
Two or three times a year we head off on a Woodland Treasures road trip, usually for a couple of weeks and incorporating two selling events. These working holidays are a great opportunity to investigate different parts of Britain we would not normally visit. It also gives us the chance to catch up with people we rarely see. From university days to the networking we have done performing street theatre at festivals, selling my jewellery at craft and wood fairs, and friends we have made as WWOOF* hosts, we now have pals up and down the country.
Our trip this month took us from our beautiful home in the Highlands to Weird and Wonderful Wood (W&WW) in Suffolk via the Scottish Borders and West Yorkshire, then home via Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Scotland’s Big Nature Festival in Musselburgh. It was our fourth consecutive year at W&WW. It is such a great event it has become a fixed date in our annual calendar. I often refer to it as a gathering of “the little people”, but I don’t mean hobbits, leprechauns or persons of restricted growth. It is a jamboree of the tree people: all kinds of wood crafters, tool and plant sellers, dealers in bric-a-brac, performers, musicians, artists and other fine folk somehow associated with the world of wood. There are no big companies, quangos or large charities to be seen. The days are busily thronged with enthusiastic wood fans and then in the evenings stall holders and other participants mingle and socialise, often around a fire where it is quite likely musicians and singers will share their tunes and songs for the enjoyment of all.
The following night we parked up at a peaceful and secluded nature reserve, where in the morning we got a rare telling off from the warden, who seemed to think that our example would encourage hordes of live-in vehicles to descend on his territory. Nonetheless, we had a lovely walk in the woods before departing, spotting the birds, butterflies and wild flowers that benefitted from his protection. Leaving Suffolk we headed northwards to explore Norfolk for a few days. Here we visited big old houses, encountered big old trees, wandered through big old woodlands and delighted in big old gardens. For me, seeing the ancient trees was a highlight. Having moved to the North of Scotland over twenty years ago this is one of the things that I miss the most. I am in awe of these gargantuan beings that have survived so many centuries despite the level of human activity around them. Their shapes are a testament to their journey through time and the conditions they have lived through, but also guided by a rough plan of a morphology inherited from their parents. I can’t claim to be able to communicate with these organisms, nor feel the life-force coursing through their great trunks, but I feel something when in their company, though whether this emanates from them or is merely my own emotional response, I cannot say.
Heading north we had a very pleasurable stopover with old friends in Southwell, Notts., and then enjoyed the hospitality of artisan chocolate makers in Haddington before rolling up in Musselburgh to set up for the weekend. Scotland’s Big Nature Festival was a disappointment. It was well organised by the RSPB, the staff and volunteers friendly and helpful, but the problem was it failed to live up to its title – it wasn’t big! From the title of the event and the high cost of our pitch we really had expected a large site full of a huge range of attractions and a very heavy footfall. Unfortunately, we were wrong. However, despite the lack of sales (we actually made a loss) we enjoyed the event, its lakeside location and were extremely pleased to make the acquaintance of the very fine folk Nic and Lolly from Amara Woodland Croft (http://www.amarawoodland.com/). I am sure we will stay in touch and meet up again later in the year.
Returning to our little oasis of blissdom is always a pleasure. In our absence the garden had transformed itself into a jungle, but the impending workload did nothing to dampen our spirits. There is something about this place, revived from former neglect and abuse and then lovingly nurtured for twenty-one years, that lifts and restores the spirit. As I can be frequently heard to say, “I like going away but I love coming home.”
*World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
I love to work with wood and I believe it can stand alone as a medium for art and craft but I also like the combination of wood with stone, so I frequently unite the two in some of my pieces.
My favourite pairing is that of bog oak with amber. The darkness of the wood contrasts pleasingly with the richness of amber. Generally people expect amber to be translucent orange but in fact it is more often cloudy, butterscotch, yellow or red; some pieces combine all of these colours in a swirling nebula. I see amber as a manifestation of ancient sunlight. Prehistoric trees grew as they basked in the rays of a more youthful sun. When they fell, their sap became fossilised to preserve that parcel of energy to glow for the eyes of humankind 30 million years later.
Most of the amber jewellery you see in the shops will contain stones heat and pressure treated in China to form easy to use shapes (image 1). This amber contains shiny discs as a result of the process. I buy my amber direct from the Baltic from beach collected supplies (image 2). In this form the pieces are random in shape with rough surfaces so there is no way to know what they will look like until polished. There are occasional disappointments where cracks or gritty inclusions are revealed, but mostly it is like fog gradually clearing to reveal a spectacular landscape.
1. 2. 3.
I also buy stones from three other sources. Adam McIntosh of two skies jewellery is an intrepid back packing, globetrotting stone collecter from whom I obtain readymade Scottish marble cabochons. I also get off cuts of this material from a local stone cutter that I shape and polish myself. Designer Cabochons hand shape and polish fair trade stones from around the world. They offer a range of beautiful jaspers, fossils, agates and turquoise in a bronze or silver matrix.
I get most pleasure from using found stones I have collected myself from river banks and beaches. There is something inexplicably compelling about inching along on my hands and knees searching for a piece of nature’s riches that has been shaped and polished by the elements. I couldn’t describe exactly what I am looking for or what it is about the one’s that appeal to me, but I know them when I see them. Perhaps there is a subconscious formula or intuitive resonance, an alchemy of shape and colour that prompts a part of my psyche to leap out of its comfy chair and shout “yes!” when these criteria are fulfilled.
By far the most rewarding hunting grounds so far were the beaches of Suffolk where miles of wave smoothed pebbles are banked up in countless billions. After hours of crawling around I left reluctantly with pummelled knees and weighed down with bulging pockets. With yearning glances back over my shoulder, I was like a child dragged away from a fun fair.
I have far too many stones, yet I continue to accumulate more. Likewise my boxes of off cuts would take several lifetimes to use, but it is good to have a range to choose from. My new workshop is like a bower bird’s nest. Perhaps I need to be surrounded by treasure to attract my muse and nurture a more fertile imagination…
I am regularly asked to make a special piece for a client. I would expect most of these requests to come in September or October as Christmas gifts but strangely this is not the case. The most popular time for people to commission something appears to be in the first few months of the year. As this is my quietest time as far as other sales go, this is a welcome trend. However, I also like to focus on developing new designs, building up stock for the busier season and dedicating some time to my other passion – writing. Invariably I fall behind on making new work so that as the first selling events approach I begin to panic as I realise that I may not have enough stock.
I enjoy the challenge of making a unique one-off piece to the customer’s requirements and also coming up with a design that they are happy with. Nevertheless I often worry that the customer may not like the finished product. In most cases the recipient is extremely pleased with their jewellery and I have been sent many lovely and moving messages of thanks, such as this:
“As I opened the box and peeked in – not knowing really what to expect – I stand in awe of the animal within. I cannot find the written words to express the beauty of the hare – all I can say is the outpouring of tears, emotions and vibrations within my being on lifting my hare from his box.You are blessed and graced with such a special creative talent.Thank you and may the Divine Spirit bless you.”
There has only been one occasion in the thirteen years I have been doing this that a client was unhappy with what I had done. It was a snow leopard bangle carved in maple and although I had sent scaled drawings, when the piece arrived it was considered too chunky and returned to me unwanted. I believe this was due to a communication problem so I now do all I can to make sure everything is clear. I tried and failed to sell the bangle so in the end I offered it as a prize in a competition on my Facebook page. The winner was extremely pleased.
It was after this that I began asking for a non-returnable deposit to confirm each commission. I had already been thinking of it after having spent two days designing some intricately carved knife handles only to have the client change his mind after receiving my drawings. I never knew if he just didn’t like my designs or if he took them to another maker…
Mostly, it is a pleasurable experience and I get to carve some wonderful pieces. My most frequent requests come from the “dragon lady” who has now ordered eight different dragon designs, including my favourite commission so far this year, a pendant in bog oak set with an opal she sent to me.
My favourite commission last year was a large badger pendant of seven different woods. I can’t post a photo though because the client has asked me not to, as it is a very personal piece. Instead I will show you my favourite commission from 2014, two love spoon pendants carved in bog oak.
I often begin the day with a walk from my home to the beach. I generally follow the same route, with occasional slight variations. The fresh air wakes me up and the exercise is beneficial. It is also an opportunity to think; often I contemplate my writing. Sometimes it is more like a form of meditation. Being close to nature is uplifting and good for the soul. It inspires the creative spirit and nurtures the imagination.
I usually start by walking through the garden, noticing the bursting buds on the many trees we have planted and pop into the polytunnel to check on the progress of seedlings or the size of the over-wintered cauliflower. Then I hop over the fence, cross a field cropped short by sheep and climb the small hill. From the top I can see the hills of Sutherland beyond the Dornoch Firth, an ever changing view of sky and sea and land, where the incongruous bulk of Dunrobin Castle’s French renaissance style backside throbs like a thorn in the side of the cruel history of its infamous erstwhile Duke.
More pleasing at this time of year are the signs of the slow northern spring. Below the hill a swathe of gorse, fulfilling its role as a pioneer plant, is enabling a gradually establishing woodland to emerge above its prickly canopy. Dozens of elder have colonised the area with a few hawthorn, willow and a solitary ash. The display of gorse flowers, as more and more blossom appears daily on each bush, matches the colour of yellowhammers’ heads. Birdsong fills the air and hundreds of little winged things flit back and forth busily preparing nests and establishing territories.
The beach, where yesterday I saw a fishing osprey, is a sandy inlet with areas of weedy rocks where I occasionally see otters. I squat on the dunes to rest and observe the bird life. Depending on the time of year this can include various waders and ducks, terns, sand martins and the ubiquitous oyster-catchers, the raucous pied pipers of the shore.
Strolling back over the fields the skylarks’ mad yet beautiful twittering reminds me of Ireland where I first heard them on holiday many years ago. It was that rural respite that first inspired us to move from the South of England to somewhere with more space, where we could grow trees and fruit and vegetables and live a home based lifestyle of craft and sustainability more in harmony with nature. We have renovated an unloved and abandoned croft house and created a woodland garden from neglected and abused land. We are still here 22 years later; we have put down roots, literally, and have no intention of moving.