The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life.
The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.
Back in August I went on some gallivants around the South West of Ireland. I had travelled in search of the wildness of ocean but in going I also had an ear out for innovative talent and creativity which had not previously been on my radar. It doesn’t take long in West Cork to find it for it seems to be flowing out of its very sinews. Within hours I was already being invited to exhibition openings and into artist’s homes. Fortune continued to favour me, for I got invited along to a series of short talks by makers in the region who were hosting a showcase exhibition called ‘Seven Hands’. And it was there I met Alison.
Hearing Alison talk about her work was a pure joy. She radiates enthusiasm, knowledge and a pure love of her craft. I have never met anyone more excited about chairs in all my life!
Alison is no ordinary chair maker however. She brings such respect to her material (hazelwood), that one could also describe her as a diviner of chairs- asking the wood how it wants to be shaped, what form it wants to take as she selects pieces for the legs, arms and back, and honouring the soul or essence of the tree from which it originated. That connection to source is carried right through to the final product. With some of the bark stripped and some left raw, it makes for tactile, textured and strikingly characterful chairs which are a delight look at, touch and sit on. The hazelwood Alison uses is all grown locally and sustainably. Plus, because of its growing cycle it means that the winter months are quite for her. During those times she writes. She is the author of two books, with a third on the way. She is a teacher too, sharing her craft and passion in workshops in her West Cork studio.
So, it turns out that I already knew Alison’s husband, who I met through Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Mmm… small world Ireland indeed!
With pleasure, I hand you over to Alison Ospina. In doing so, I wish you could sit on one of her chairs as you read this. You’ll just have to enlist your imagination and pay a visit to West Cork soon…
What makes you tick? What motivates you?
I love trees and I love wood, I love working with it, polishing it, touching it, looking at it. I also have a major obsession with chairs!
What keeps you in ireland?
I moved to West Cork almost 20 years ago and it was here that I started making Green Wood Chairs. Here I learnt to make elegant, sculptural chairs that reflect the grace and beauty of the trees they come from. All my materials are grown in my immediate locality – my chairs and I are rooted in the West Cork countryside.
What do you do just for the love of it?
All of my work is done for the love of it – I can’t stop, it makes me feel so good!
What does the creative process teach you?
Initially I was so excited about making chairs from hazel that I rushed at it with only the final result in mind. Over the years I have learned to enjoy the process. I am methodical, I take my time, correct mistakes and focus on getting it as close to perfect as possible – that’s where the real satisfaction lies – I guess it teaches me self- discipline.
Why do you do what you do?
I used to work in psychiatry – I’m fascinated by people and what makes them tick. I have discovered that there is nothing more therapeutic than working with your hands to create useful, beautiful things. I enjoy the making and the learning processes and I enjoy the feel of developing skills – it is satisfying and makes me feel fulfilled.
What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?
When I started teaching in adult education I had to write a module descriptor for Green Wood Furniture Making. I was forced to really pick apart every process and describe it in writing. It was so hard to do but ultimately really useful.
The next key moment was writing my first book “Green Wood Chairs.” Writing down all my methods and techniques turned my practice into something accessible to others. I now find that people who see the book, get inspired and have a go at green wood chairmaking themselves.
How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?
If I do not feel inspired for a while, I do something completely different and unrelated. I read a lot of fiction and I write (non fiction) books. My work schedule is dictated by my materials to a large extent: Hazel is coppiced in December/January, it is left to stand until April/May, I make chairs and teach courses from May to September and I write books and teach in college from September to May.
Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?
Much of my inspiration comes from seeing the bare branches of trees in Winter silhouetted against the clear grey sky. The shapes of the negative spaces intrigue me, these are the shapes I want to incorporate into next year’s chairs.
How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?
Through the tough times I am sustained by my husband (who says, “It doesn’t matter if you have made a loss this year – you are an artist – look at Van Gogh, he never sold any paintings in his lifetime”, my family and my dog who loves me unconditionally!
What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’?
I have learned that it is very difficult earning a crust as a creative practitioner. I have done a few courses for entrepreneurs and read lots of business books and come to the conclusion that with marketing, advertising and selling there is no “one answer.” Everything works a little bit, so you have to do everything. I have also learnt that self-employed people are generally very resourceful, reliable and hard working. I have learned (from my many failures) to never participate in craft fairs – people do not buy chairs from craft fairs!! In the early years, when my work did not sell, I got disheartened and felt that I should not be making chairs that nobody wanted. However I could not stop and after 20 years I have developed a high level of skill and now at last people are buying my work. In my case it has been a long, long game.
Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?
I do not have a morning routine but after finishing work I always sweep the floor and put my tools away because nothing makes me want to work more than a tidy workshop!
What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to?
After trees, books are my main source of inspiration. I have books about Wharton Escerick (Studio and Collection) Sam Maloof (The Furniture of Sam Maloof) and George Nakashima (The Soul of a Tree). The book that started me off in furniture making is “The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture”. I love big, shiny, hardback books – I even like the smell of them!
What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?
“Keep at it, believe in yourself “- I know it sounds corny but it is true.
And what advice would you give to your future self?
“Keep an open mind, keep designing and innovating – look for ways to help yourself progress and develop”
“Listen to your students – they know nothing and they know everything” (cryptic – but teachers will know what I mean)
What is coming up next for you?
I am working in collaboration with Kerry Woollen Mills to make a Limited Edition Winter Collection of upholstered chairs. They have dyed a batch of woollen fabric especially for Green Wood Chairs.The Collection will be shown at an exhibition at the RIAI in 8 Merrion Square, Dublin November 17th – 27th.
Green Wood Chairs will be profiled on an RTE programme entitled “Designing Ireland” due to be aired this month.
I am writing a new companion book to “Green Wood Chairs” called “Green Wood Stools” due to be published in September 2016.
Visit Alison’s website Green Wood Chairs
Thank you so much Alison- such a delight to learn more about your work and process. – Clare x