Creative Islanders: Alison Ospina


Alison Ospina

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…

 

Small Armchair Orla K small jpg

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.

AO49

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!

AO52

 

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.

Fireside Armchair leather strap seat

 

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


Creative Islanders: Superfolk

Folding Camping Stool 4 copy

The Creative Islanders is an 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.

………………..

Next up in the series is Superfolk founded by partners in life and business Jo Anne Bulter and Gearóid Muldowney. Based in Westport, in the wild west of Ireland, Superfolk design and craft exquisite homewares. Inspired by the outdoors and with respect to the raw and rugged landscape and materials which surround them, both Jo Anne and Gearóid’s work exude craftsmanship with comes with much patience, practice and a deeply rooted passion for elegance and beauty. I greatly admire their decision to move out west, working to create a business in tune with the landscape while generating employment and opportunities for the region.

Jo Anne also inspired me recently to take up lino cutting again, and gave me some very useful tips and hints (thank you!) I also love popping into their Instagram feed to have a visual dose of the west… they take some stunning images.

Now over to some words from Jo Anne & Gearóid..

portrait_beach_low res

Photo Credit:Henrietta Williams

What makes you tick? What motivates you?

Jo Anne: I love to understand the relationships and connections between things and am curious about simple things in nature, animals, our weather and our environment. In designing I always want to try to understand the core or the essence of a material, a process or a problem. I want to always be proud of the work that we do and I love sharing that with others. Some people connect in a very emotional way to the sensibility of what we make and really get it and that’s very rewarding. We want to build a business where we will be creating employment in the west of Ireland.

Gearoid: I like to identify problems and rectifying them. I enjoy fixing things. But at some point its best to start afresh and thats why I design new things. Being able to understand your built/designed/made environment helps orientate a person. Being able to tell a story through our products is normal; materials have a history, objects are created in a context, keeping that context part of the product is an integral part of what we do.

What keeps you in Ireland?

Jo Anne: Our families – My father passed away in 2006 and Gearoid’s father died in 2012. The sense of sadness and loss is profound, but, bereavement also brought a deepening appreciation for our family, our friends and the feeling of ‘at home’ we have with living in the west of Ireland.

Gearoid: I love Ireland. My upbringing and my education has given me a wonderful appreciation for this island. My parents and my primary school teachers introduced me to the rich cultural heritage that is ours to discover. Ireland’s geography, natural history and culture fascinates me. With Superfolk, we are trying our best to use all of these elements to our advantage. We don’t want to leave.

Print 3-seaspaghetti

What do you do just for the love of it?

Jo Anne: I love learning about what I am seeing around me and anything that involves fresh air and being outside – walking, hiking, climbing, kayking, snorkelling, camping. I love trying to identify wild flowers and plants. I want to understand how a single plant can tell the story of its habitat – the relationship between the climate, topography and geology of a place. I want to know not just the name of everything that grows in the wild but why it chooses to grow where and when it grows – the wider inter-connected story of habitat. And I love watching Homeland. And Vikings.

Gearoid: I like being outside. I use fly fishing as a legitimate excuse to roam the countryside, study maps jump fences and talk to strangers. Fly fishing gives me the license to stand in rivers in silence, whilst water rushes all around you. I can stand motionless in a ditch listening for a plop of a trouts lip as it sips in flies trapped in the water surface film. I like the silence of big open spaces. Hiking in the hills of Mayo energises me. We have a large dog, ‘Woody’, a Wiemaraner and he demands plenty of exercise, so he’s another excuse to be in forests and hills and beaches.

What does the creative process teach you?

Jo Anne: Good work will not be forced. We might push really long and hard trying to make something work and eventually have to admit defeat. Good work is more instinctive, more fluid and truer to ourselves. When we are slogging at something it can be hard to stop and accept that what is more easy, free and simple is the better work. The slog is an important part of the creative process but its not the work. I think this is described best in the phrase ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’.

Gearoid. How to be honest. Well made things are honest. There are no tricks, if you want to make something that will last, and function well there are no short cuts. Use good materials and do them justice.

CampingStool Trivets

How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?

Jo Anne: Turn it upside down. In my foundation art course my tutor Robin Jones would tell us to frequently turn the page of a drawing upside down to make us look at the drawing with fresh eyes. So I try to find similar ways to keep fresh eyes and perspective on whatever I am working on. Turn the page upside down, take a step back, take a break, go for a walk. Learn to change your position relative to your work and learn to see with fresh eyes.

Gearoid: I don’t get stuck much these days. When I was younger I might have been more precious about my  ideas and less willing to give up on something that wasn’t working. I’ve gotten better at scrapping something that isn’t working, ideas are two a penny.

Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?

Jo Anne: We are designers but it is really important to us that we are always looking outside of ‘design’. When Gearoid and I travel to new places we always look out for the folk museum, the natural history museum, the odd strange decorative arts museum.  I really love any outdoor folk museums even really touristy ones. I love ‘Den Gamle By’, the outdoor folk life museum in Arhus in Denmark.

Gearoid: Humans have been designing and problem solving for thousands of years. Its only in the last few hundred years that we have begun to document some of these results. My interest in vernacualr life tools is endless. I love folk museums especially if they have an outdoor element and archaeology, you cant beat digging in the ground and speculating.

Trivet Oak

How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?

Jo Anne: The memory of that first feeling of Spring in the air – at any time of year. And anything William Wegman ever made. Walking and listening to podcasts.

Gearoid: I used to smoke, rolling tobacco and I really enjoyed the peaceful time it gave. It allowed me time to meditate on things. It turns out smoking kills you, so I walk the dog now or go fishing.

What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way?

Jo Anne: Don’t take criticism personally. Listen and understand criticism as subjective insight.

Gearoid: Play the long game. Make good work. Don’t rush things. Give yourself time to do a good job. Be nice to people and don’t waste time on negative thoughts.

What have you learned from your ‘failures’?

Jo Anne: Never be afraid to cut your losses. Don’t keep going with something that in your gut doesn’t feel right because you are too afraid of losing what you have already invested.

Gearoid: Not to give up. Move on quickly and regroup. Moving forward and not dwelling in the past is important. Keep moving forward.

Print Studio 2

Do you have a morning routine?

Jo Anne: Roughly along the lines of …Feed the dog, go for a walk, come back have porridge and coffee and have a short meeting about what work is needed to be done that day.

Gearoid: Porridge. Clean and tidy, start work as soon as possible. Morning is the best time to have clear thoughts and energy.

Or other creative habits or rituals?

Jo Anne: Walking meetings – when we are figuring something out together rather than a sit-down brainstorm we take walking meetings where we walk and talk through our ideas. For some reason when we are more active, walking, you can be more insightful and make big decisions more confidently.

Gearoid: I like to have a place for everything so I’m constantly trying to put my life in order or de clutter my life. It is a struggle, the world wants me to have so much stuff.

What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to? 

Jo Anne: The Wild Flowers of Ireland by Carsten Krieger and Declan Doogue – It tells the story of wildflowers and wild plant life from the point of view of habitat – I love to think about the inter-relationship of factors that create an amenable habitat for plantlife– in a funny way it is really quite relevant to home-wares designing. Also ‘The Way That I Went’ by the naturalist Robert Lloyd Preager. When I’m drawing I listen to podcasts like ‘On Being’ and podcasts about slow food movement and plant life on ‘Heritage Radio Network’.

Gearoid: I have referred to the SAS survival handbook since I was a child. Its a guide to doing everything a human needs to do to stay alive, it has nothing superfluous of luxurious in it its a stripped back guide to living. Its not a bad place to begin if you are designing lifestyle or homeware goods.

What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?

Jo Anne: Trust your gut. Don’t wait to be perfect (because there’s no such thing)

Gearoid: Be brave.

 

 

Print Studio 1

 

Find out more over on their website Superfolk 

Follow them on Instagram here. 

Thank you so much Superfolk. You are, indeed, super folk. Clare x