Studio Woodworkers Australia’s most recent exhibition, Edge – Exploring Boundaries, opened on February 16 and runs until March 29 at Sturt Gallery, Mittagong, NSW. Since Chatoyance, SWA’s last exhibition in 2019, the association has undergone some restructuring and membership has increased by 25 per cent, notably with emerging and mid career makers.
Around 300 people attended the exhibition opening, spilling out into the main area, as did the large collection of work presented. Below, SWA member and designer maker Ian Higgs muses on lives of those who are driven to make, and shares his thoughts of being part of a vibrant creative community.
Edge – Exploring Boundaries is an exhibition of 36 pieces of individually designed and handcrafted items of furniture, all targeting the domestic furniture market. Each piece is beautifully crafted and brings together all our accumulated skills, our resources, a possibly neurotic tenacity, and most importantly, our creativity.
We combine these attributes in an attempt to express something of ourselves from deep within. Some people write poetry, some paint. We aspire to making unique furniture – the objects that people gather in their caves or castles to make life more manageable and more beautiful.
We frequently go to extremes in our attempts to give form to these ideas, these promptings from within. We are playing to a higher deity. Often we make pieces that we ourselves couldn’t afford! Ha! It can sometimes seem rather pointless, but if you’re a maker, ignore at your peril an idea or an urge to make something.
I am reminded of ‘the bright carvers’, a fictional collective from the novel Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake:
“They live just outside the castle walls, in hovels of straw and mud. Their lives are hard and monotonous, they live solely on Jarl root and crusts of bread lowered down from the castle walls each morning. Their sole obsession is the carving of beautiful wooden sculptures, brightly painted, and presented to the royalty on one day in June each year. Only three are chosen, the rest are burned. The bright carvers are a race apart from the castle dwellers, living by their own cultural norms and customs, which are impenetrable to others.”
Beautiful fiction, but it resonates. That is what we attempt – to make something that resonates, an attempt to describe the numinous, the unknowable reality that underlies all things.
We are part of an unbroken line of makers going back (by current estimations) 3.3 million years, to the makers of stone axes – arguably another item designed to make life more manageable, an item once realised, over time became beautified to levels of fantastic artistic expression, seen in swords, daggers and the like. Our own humble hand tools are currently going through another design renaissance, with many makers offering up even more beautiful (and functional) planes, squares and chisels.
A long bow perhaps, but all of this was evident at the Edge exhibition and the associated demonstrations and market stalls1. The accumulated skills, passion, curiosity, and a propensity for problem solving evident in every conversation engaged or overheard. Is this the driving force behind the assembled and offered pieces at Sturt Gallery?
Well, a rational approach to employment and financial security didn’t occupy too much discussion time over the weekend, notwithstanding the offering of our brightly painted carvings to the royalty present during the opening ceremony, when David Muston invited Richard Munao to critique our works prior to the opening with the goal of achieving production runs, or licensing deals through his Cult Design organisation. ‘Polarising’ comes to mind…
It is a discussion we all brush up against, but for most, the experience of the making, the (perceived) ‘purity’ of design, the intimate relationship we have as makers with our selves and our furniture during the making, are not open to debate. Discussion, Hell yes, all night long. Not debate.
David Boucher2 opened the event and spoke to us with a heartwarming story of trials, tribulations, and (current) success; a man of great achievement, his stories unfolded like a cabinetmaker’s book of Myths and Legends. Great to hear every word from David, I have long been curious.
What can we take back to our workshops from these two men of vastly different connections to the world of furniture? Something different for each of us no doubt. For me, I saw two creative men who had adapted a working business model to their craft, this being their real field of expertise. The other hat. The reason these men were invited to speak to us.
There was however, a richer experience to be had at Sturt. The school itself – almost 80 years of teaching woodwork, the woodworkers who bring their knowledge, skill and passion, the past students who return to exhibit in the gallery, join the woodworkers associations, share their knowledge, and support the upcoming furniture makers. All the cabinetmakers I had read about or seen examples of their work were here, or known to those here, or had been here.
I had a very satisfying recurring perception of Sturt School as a beehive, and all the makers from up and down the coast and further afield returning often, laden with enthusiasm. Fellowship is the appropriate word to describe what is happening with Sturt School of Wood and Studio Woodworkers Australia, with David MacLaren at Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, and with the Australian Wood Review, and others I’m yet to encounter as integral ‘fellows’ in this practice of ours.
It’s nice to find your people!
1. Sturt School For Wood’s annual Tools & Techniques weekend ran on the same weekend.
2. Learn more about David Boucher at https://boucherandco.com/
Learn more about Studio Woodworkers Australia atwww.studiowoodworkers.org.au
The June issue 107 of Australian Wood Review will feature a review of the work shown at Edge – Exploring Boundaries.
Ian Higgs has had a 45 year career as a self employed furniture maker/woodworker. As well as undertaking private commissions he works with other designers, architects and artists. For Edge – Exploring Boundaries Ian exhibited a cabinet of which he said: ‘Every now and then, I am able to design and make a piece just for the joy of it, and this collectors cabinet is just such a piece – an unashamedly “soft” piece, merging the edges of recognised styles, but still very much what it was designed to be – a companion piece.’
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