Cornish artist and designer Amy Isles Freeman has taken a male-dominated part of the design industry and turned it on his head with her hand-painted hand-turned wooden bowls that celebrate femininity. We talked art school, feminism, and kindly neighbours…
How did you get into woodturning?
When I graduated from art school I wanted to learn a skill. I was introduced to a lathe on a farm by Felix McCormack, and now I can make things of use.
It’s quite a male-dominated part of the design industry, isn’t it?
Yes, customers often ask if I both made and painted the bowls and pots – or if my boyfriend did them for me. I relish telling them I made them myself, and I hope that interaction will hinder any future assumptions.
What gave you the idea to paint the underside of the bowls?
When a skilled practitioner takes on a different medium, I often find the outcomes more interesting than what they originally trained in. I studied drawing and I’m a printmaker by trade. The only way I could come into the populated craft arena with any confidence was to produce something that I was at least half way skilled in already, so it was always the idea when I started turning, that I would paint them too.
As a child I painted rocks and sold them outside my house. There was no passing traffic, just kindly neighbours and I reckon the idea of painting on objects stayed with me.
I want to challenge the extent to which a functional object can be considered art. On their own, woodturning and surface design are respected fields, but people are unsure of them in combination, which box to put the resulting objects in and how to value them.
What inspires the paintings?
I grew up on colour, pattern and texture. My mum was an illustrator, so all my play as a child was drawing and designing, and my style hasn’t ever really changed.
Naked ladies have been a theme for a while. I celebrate women, and the joy of being a woman. Emerging into feminism whilst studying, I eagerly looked for feminist art that I could engage with, but I just found so much anger. Important and game changing, but I wanted to join a conversation that originated in a more hopeful and positive place.
Talk us through your design and making process.
I go to the timber yard, in deepest, darkest Cornwall – so deep that I can’t even remember where it is and I’ve driven there alone. I get my wood – at the moment it’s sugar maple and sycamore, the thickest he has. Then I draw out my blanks, completely arbitrarily – I can’t make two bowls the same so why try? I cut the blacks using a bandsaw and then put them on the lathe. I’ve been told I’m a pretty fast turner. If I’m making plant pots, I will line the insides with epoxy resin to make them water-resistent, and then sit in my studio and stare at the plants that I have already amassed to be potted. The pots and plants have to work together, so I design and paint surrounded by the plant each pot is intended for.
One of the most important things my arts education taught me was to not be precious, so I don’t think too much about the design before I begin. If it doesn’t work, it goes back on the lathe and I sand it off and start again. It could take three tries to get a bowl right, but if I plan out what I’m going to paint, it takes away the play. The painted bits get covered in floor varnish, the wood is oiled, and then I put them on my market stand and smile at the public.
What defines good design?
It’s playful and intuitive.
What advice would you give you a new wordworker – perhaps a female woodworker?
Bring what you know from any other discipline. Be confident, and support the other women around you.
What are you most proud of?
Being able to make myself laugh – and being able to adapt.
What’s next for you?
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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