Greg Collins was a noted West Australian wood artist and furniture designer/maker who sadly passed away on January 7, 2016. Below is the profile of Greg that appeared in Australian Wood Review, issue 34, March 2002. Story by Linda Nathan, Wood Review editor.
It would be tempting to write about the frustration of writing about Greg Collins because of the trail of phone calls and left messages spanning a period of over three years! Why bother?
Because, not only has Greg Collins’s work deserved and received attention over the years, and not only is his work informed by environmental issues and creative imperatives, but it’s also no exaggeration to say his story is one of personal triumph over physical adversity.
‘It’s the fact that I enjoy my work as much as I do that I keep going…unless I’m incapacitated, I work,’ says Greg, whose chronically degenerative spinal condition has resulted in a decade of pain and various forms of treatment. In the last seven years alone there have been 80 hospitalisations. Aside from the physical and psychological barriers to maintaining a business as a producer of studio furniture, there have been lengthy disruptions to cash flow.
His physical condition is never far from the surface of everyday life: ‘I’m living with a timebomb. The worst case scenario is I could be paralysed from the neck down. I try to deal with my life on a day-to-day basis, managing the pain with exercises and medication.’
Some years ago, commenting on the severity of his condition, one doctor advised him that it was time to ‘get some knitting needles and a chequered blanket’. Talk to Greg about his life and he’ll tell you about thrillseeking, about pushing boundaries and taking risks — motor bikes, big waves, star jumping from great heights and more were once part of his big picture of getting adrenalin rushes. Clearly the doctor’s suggestion was one he was going to ignore.
Greg feels he has always pushed other boundaries with his work. In his late 20s, when his career wasn’t yet determined, his grandfather gave him a lathe and that was the start of his woodworking. Actually, prior to that and in large part to due to the dyslexia which hampered formal studies, Greg reckons he had at least 100 jobs over a period of 14 years. His personal confidence hadn’t been boosted by his upbringing: ‘I was put down a lot (because of the dyslexia) as a kid — everyone said I would fail, including my family… When I started this I was going to prove to every-one that they were wrong. My attitude was that I couldn’t fail. When I got a Churchill Fellowship they all came grovelling, it was sickening…’
But by the 80s he was known for his hollow turnings, new in Australia at that time. Studies in interior and industrial design bolstered his credentials and propelled an ensuing career as a furniture designer and maker of turned sculptural bowls. Now, at 50, after 25 years of work, there have been 180 combined and 13 solo exhibitions in six different countries. There’s a sizeable list of famous names and collections who own Collins’ frequently award-winning work. Since 1993 he has operated from his Margaret River studio and gallery. In recent years his elder son Brendon has joined him as a furniture making apprentice and personal assistant.
Perhaps the jagged spikes which adorn some of his pieces reflect the extremities of his life. The ‘bungee jumper’, like some of his other work might be autobiographical, but most of his work reveals a preoccupation with sleek lines, curved facets, sculpted supports and details, decorative geometric inlay, combinations of contrasting materials and above all, the use of native timbers, most of which is ‘forest waste’.
There is probably no other issue which inflames Greg to the degree forestry practices do. For the last 15–20 years he has been trying to ‘get sanity to prevail’ with regard to forest waste. Greg grew up in the bush, camping out, trapping rabbits and exploring. When he started out as a woodworker on a farm near the small town of Kirrup it was natural to spend lots of time in the bush, collecting branches and hauling fallen logs to nearby mills. ‘The more I looked, the more I saw…large jarrah logs bulldozed to make a track and just left there.’ He got involved in local and state politics and wasn’t afraid to express his views publicly. Involvement with government and the Fine Wood Industry Project1 led eventually to the creation of a ‘Forest Product Licence’ which gave craftspeople access to fallen timber.
In recent times Greg has petitioned a silicone smelter which he claims uses 350,000 tonnes of jarrah per annum to make charcoal. He speaks convincingly about the exponential value to be added to native timbers by using them for craft items and furniture. Because of his public profile as a timber user and proponent of value-adding he was periodically co-opted by the Australian Conservation Foundation to speak at various rallies aimed at halting the logging of old growth forests. ‘If I feel passionate about something that’s obviously wrong, seeing trees cut down for stupid reasons, I get involved…I’m one of the few high profile woodies who will speak out publicly.’
Not only does he deplore the waste of the commercially unwanted and more unusual tree species in the course of logging operations, but he also loathes what he terms the ‘slab mentality’ or ‘large penis syndrome’ of some makers. It’s important that woodworkers ‘re-evaluate how they use massive slabs’, as large pieces of timber are not design solutions in themselves, and, in the case of a finite resource, less has to be more. And that’s why Greg’s furniture espouses fine lines and sections.
Greg’s design philosophy usually starts from the materials available, but not always. His early forays into the jarrah forest provided him with lesser known understorey timbers to work with: ‘I used to bring back peppermint, native pear, banksias, snottygobble2, anything big enough to make something out of…’ Even now, most of the timber he uses has been salvaged from forests and farms and this is appreciated by most of his clients.
He is known for his original style but he can’t point to specific influences. ‘I’ve never read a lot of books. At first I just went off on my merry way’, says Greg, although he does like Art Deco jewellery and tableware and some of the furniture of that period. ‘I like simple lines and I have an endless supply of designs in my head. I draw well on a drawing board (I’m a geometrical person) and the things I make have negative and positive shapes. I carry a book around with me to sketch in.’
Greg has become a specialist in the judicious and decorative use of timber veneers. In 1988 he visited the Milan Furniture Fair in Italy and saw what he called the best and worst furniture in the world. The best, he says, was veneered, and (once he had a vacuum press) that technique opened up for him a ‘limitless design capacity in shapes, colours, borders and inlay’. Traditional joinery techniques are a given, but Greg will ‘buy any tool I can get that will do it faster with the same quality and strength’. ‘I like using hand planes (I have lovely Ashby and Lie-Nielsen planes) but that’s not what turns me on, I like to get to the inlay’.
His attitude to design changed after travelling on a Churchill fellowship. In Canada he stayed with Mike Hosaluk for a week and said Mike ‘lifted the lid on my brain and let it open up a bit more’. Visiting David Ellsworth, the guru of hollow turning, also stimulated his work in this area.
With a vast list of international and local exhibition and sales credits to his name, it seems marketing and promotion must have come naturally. Where ever the exhibition was held he simply ‘worked the media’, says Greg, as if that was the easiest thing to know how to do. In 1980 he had his first solo exhibition in Fremantle. It took 18 months of full time work and a borrowed $20,000 to get it to happen. But it was getting it into TV andnewspapers that got an estimated 4,000 people to visit each week. After that, with 18 months of orders in his book, Greg reckoned he had proved to himself he could do whatever he wanted.
Nowadays the furniture studio with its bamboo garden surround and small showroom is a fertile place. Brendon works there on a full-time basis and Greg works as much as he can push his body to go. Forty per cent of what the two make goes to Europe, another forty to Sydney and Melbourne and the rest goes to Asian and local buyers. The need for self-promotion has diminished, a track record of prestigious examples of work signposts the way for new customers. Recently there were some business people from the UK who made the trip and ordered $120,000 worth of work after seeing Greg’s work at the Bank of Zurich in Switzerland.
On a personal level Greg’s story is a reminder to us all to appreciate what we have got. Business-wise it’s a lesson about the value of persistence. On a creative level it’s about listening to those inner voices which tell us to say whatever it is we need to say in the medium that moves us most.
1. The Fine Wood Industry Project was established in WA in the late 80s to promote value-adding to native timbers through the craft industry.
2. Snottygobble – the seed pods of this tree were chewed as gum by the local kids when Greg grew up. When spat out they resembled their namesake.
Click on the images in the gallery above to read captions and photo credits.