Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Field Research

On a one-week research trip to Cumbria, I tried to meet with as many local makers as I could, including a coppice worker, charcoal maker, wood turner, doll maker, knitter and hook rug maker, blacksmith, bone and horn carver, and a walking stick and rustic furniture maker. I met with each person for a couple of hours at their home or workshop. We spoke about the history of their craft and the notion of tradition, if and how they had apprenticed themselves to learn it, and how they feel about exhibiting, demonstrating, or selling it and in what context.

Alan Hartley, a coppice worker, described the ways in which the local forests have been worked and maintained for centuries. Coppice workers cut down young trees, strip them of bark, and use or sell the lumber for various things including, historically, furniture, firewood, charcoal, and bobbin-making. Alan does not consider himself a “traditional” maker, since he uses various machinery to help him do his work, including a circular planing machine which strips the bark from the trees. He says that he uses this machine because he has to make a living, and to do it the traditional way would be too laborious and time-consuming. However, being a coppice worker is traditional job, since it is an increasingly expensive and uncommon trade. Special forest areas have to be fenced off to protect against deer that would otherwise feed on the young saplings, and one has to get grants to do this kind of work and to keep the tradition alive. Alan, who has worked for the Forestry Commission, said that this is a shame, since most of the local forests are neglected and need maintenance.

Besides coppice work, Alan works in old houses to replace ceiling timbers. He considers himself an engineer rather than a craftsperson. According to him, the most traditional thing he does is to make traditional seats and pub furniture out of coppice wood. After the trees are cut and stripped of their bark, they are stacked against a tree and dried in the sun. Then each rounded pole is cut down to make the sturdy rustic furniture commonly seen in the outdoor areas of local pubs.

Alan described this work as a chosen way of life, one he has happily not taken a holiday from in twenty years. Making furniture is a “rainy day” project he does in the off-hours to keep himself busy when he can’t be in the forest. In an uncanny evocation of Ruskin, Alan said he only makes a few seats at a time, and only sells them through word-of-mouth, “otherwise it would be like a factory.” He is anti-advertising. His work is very tied to weather and nature. Making seats provides him with a slower pace of life and a chance to get out of the rain. He feels it is good for his health, and on a larger scale, “good for man,” since we need healthy forests for a healthy planet.

I met Audrey Steeley, formerly of Grizedale Arts, who now runs a heritage museum at the Heron Corn Mill, a working corn mill dating back to 1740. She told me a bout many local makers, and introduced me to Michael Booth, a wood turner who sells his work at the mill. Mike belongs to a local woodturning society, which holds monthly meetings and demonstrations. A prolific maker, he said he enjoys woodturning primarily for pleasure, and only sells his work to get rid of the surplus. Unlike other craftspeople in the region, he is not interested in showing and selling his work at the country fairs and agricultural shows, as he feels they are too expensive and boring, “like watching paint dry.” He doesn’t teach, because he has invented his own methods and techniques, and thinks he couldn’t teach the basics properly. So for £5 I bought a small wooden goblet he made with a ring around its stem, a somewhat common object he said, made as a way to show off your woodturning skills, and he explained how he did it so I could try it on my own. When I said I wasn't sure if I could do it as well, he remarked. "Well there ARE lady turners..."

I spent a lovely afternoon with Joanne Gill, who makes bobbin dolls from the wooden spools used for thread, as well as patchwork creations and beaded greeting cards. Trying to be, as she said, a “hostess with the mostest, “Joanne served up delicious tea and cookies in her immaculately clean home, as she told of how she has been a housebound maker, feeling poorly over the past several years. Crafts have been a way to occupy her idle hands and to stave off boredom. She has always been a maker, since she was a child and avidly watched Blue Peter, a project-centered television show for kids.

Joanne remarked that Notion Nanny is like a “journey” to learn the crafts of the peddler doll. She herself has journeyed to peddle her wares at the fairs, with some success in Cumbria but more in Newcastle. She attributed this to the fact that maybe her work doesn’t fit into the description of “traditional enough” for what people are seeking in this region. There is an interesting transformation happening in the Lake District, in which an influx of people are coming to the region and buying homes and property for holiday use. Many of these houses are only occupied by their urban owners for part of the year. Yet this growing population, seeking fulfillment of a particular notion of the countryside, have begun to transform the region into a kind of ideal fantasy of the countryside, leading some to wonder what happened to the “real” Lake District.

I spent another lovely afternoon with Audrey Grisedale, who works in lots of mediums and like Joanne, will “have a go” at any craft that strikes her fancy. In her parlor she set up an impressive array of objects that she went to the trouble of retrieving from friends and loved ones for the purpose of our meeting. You see, Audrey would never think of selling her work, rather she only gives it to people as gifts. Next to the fireplace a series of colorful crocheted teddy bears sat ready to be given to the police department for child victims of accidents. Other bears had been sent to children in war-torn regions of the world. She also showed me pieces of Ruskin linen and lace work she had done, which she intended to pass on one day to her nieces. On the wall were two hook rug banners depicting portraits of Herdwick sheep. These were made as memorials for local farmers who lost hundreds of sheep during a recent epidemic of foot and mouth disease in which mass hysteria provoked the government to have thousands of sheep killed unnecessarily. Audrey was visibly emotional as she told this story and its effect on her family who have farmed in the region of over three hundred years.

One of the positive outcomes of this traumatic event was an evening crafts group formed by Audrey and some other women in her community. Every week, women would gather to talk and make things. For the farms that lost their sheep, regular daily farming activities came to a halt, and this group became a positive way to offer women something productive to do with their time and with their feelings about the event. According to Audrey, the group was quite popular and it allowed the women of the community to come together, to exchange skills, and to expand notions of their individual identities. Whether it was in the sense of urgency evident in her making of the teddy bears and banners, her participation in the tradition of creating family heirlooms, or her desire to create a community-based crafts group as a therapeutic response to trauma, the notion of giving was key to Audrey’s craft pursuits.


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