An open studio residency with Michael Fortune
Above: Left to right: Carolyn Ellis, Michael Fortune, Cat Cook, Stuart Faulkner, Ben Raglan, Sam Harrap, Kelly Parker, Will Bayliss, Lou Fuller (tutor and workshop technician), Ernest Angelo, Peter Ellis, Helen Gerry (Manager, Centre for Fine Woodworking).
Words: Linda Nathan
Photos: Daniel Allen
It’s said that learning from Michael Fortune is like drinking from a fire hose. For the eight who participated in his six week open studio residency in New Zealand at the start of 2020, it was definitely a case of immersion.
Michael Fortune is the ‘anything but square’* furniture designer maker and educator from Canada whose work is known and collected all over the world. During the six weeks, participants were encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, and to use their time as an opportunity to experiment freely.
Michael Fortune, Canada teaches workshops all over the while while maintaining a busy practice as a designer and maker of furniture.
Michael is a wellspring of energy and radiates positivity. He smiles readily and an eyebrow may arch when he comments on a student’s work: ‘How about if we did this?’ ‘Have you thought of putting this on its side?’ There is no wrong, but there can always be other ways of going about things.
Woodworking is about problem solving, but part of the problem is which solution to run with, because there are many ways to cut the proverbial joint. Design is about form, line, material choice and all- things visual and then it migrates to decisions and solutions to processes. These will be selected and adapted for a range of details which flow down to micro level.
Kelly Parker, USA co-taught during the six week residency and also tutored in surface embellishment techniques.
Learn from Michael Fortune and US-based Kelly Parker, who co- taught during the residency, and you will be sketching, creating mock-ups and prototypes. You may learn to construct exo- or endoskeletons, in other words, support frames for complex constructions that will allow you to determine reference points and angles for joinery. And there’s not much chance that you won’t learn about making and using jigs. Joinery and the methods and jigs required to construct a form are part of the design process, as are the modifications which may happen along the way.
For the six who travelled from Australia and the USA, the journey was the destination, because this open studio experience was not about completing a piece, but about the learnings to be gained along the way.
While five of the eight were professional (or intending soon to be) woodworkers, the reasons for coming amounted to a commitment to invest their own creative and personal development. On the day before the program came to an end I spoke to each of those who took part about what they had hoped to gain. This is not to say
that there were no times of feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of the technical and aesthetic exploration being thrown at and drawn out of them, but on those final days there was a universal glow of achievement. None of the pieces were finished, but there had been a turning point that would lead to new directions.
Will Bayliss, ACT
Former apprentice of the year, Wootha Prize winner 2019 and most recently recipient of a scholarship to participate in an open studio program with Michael Fortune – there seems no way to dim the light on the youngest member of this cohort.
As a qualified career furniture maker Will Bayliss, 21 arrived with skills that were honed to production and efficiency. Given the opportunity to create to his own brief the leash was definitely off as Will rose to the Michael Fortune challenge. His cabinet was ‘anything but square’ and in fact a confection of curves, tapers, round-overs, coves and components shaped every which-way.
Every drawer in the chest he made had a different set of angles – in fact only one had a drawer front that was parallel with the floor. Even drawer bases were kerf-cut to gentle curves. The integrated drawer pulls were initially cut on the tablesaw, then bandsawn to shape with the aid of a jig.
Conceived, mocked up and made to almost completion, Will’s cabinet was a tour de force that drew admiration from all, more so because the design happened only at the outset. ‘The night before I was sketching a couple of rough ideas, but I didn’t want to get too far into the ideation process because I’m here to learn from Michael and gather ideas from everyone,’ Will said. ‘And Michael is the boss of curves so I just sketched something with a whole lot of curves and didn’t get too worried about how it was going to happen.’
‘Having completed my apprenticeship with Evan (Dunstone) a year and a half ago I’d never been outside the one workshop since I was 16. I thought (this) would be a good opportunity to get a new mentor and workshop environment. It was also about being in a different headspace and putting all deadlines aside and having the freedom to just make something for six weeks. I wanted
to make something with a bit of whimsy and asymmetry – it’s an oxymoron when you’re think about it, but asymmetrical work still needs to be visually balanced.’
Carolyn Ellis, WA
When Carolyn Ellis’s father tragically died in an accident some eight years ago only months after retiring, she and her husband took time out to evaluate life priorities. ‘We sat back and thought, should we continue working for that retirement and possibly never get there, or do something that makes us happy now?’
And that was how Carolyn took up woodworking, first taking lessons at Perth Wood School where she later did a course with Michael Fortune. Travelling overseas to do a another workshop with him was a big decision but she knew some of what to expect.
‘As a teacher, Michael is really easy-going and I find his style easy to understand’, she said. ‘He explains everything well and doesn’t over-complicate things.’ In her day job Carolyn is part-owner of a business that manufactures equipment for
the mining industry but as a woodworker ‘I’m the least qualified to be here,’ she said.
Building a memory box, a ‘simple piece’, intended as a present for her daughter’s 18th birthday turned out to be a feat of repetition and an ongoing lesson in accuracy. She started with drawings and then mock-ups for lots of drawers that ‘floated’ with a 5mm gap between each layer ‘to add negative space’. Each of the many compartments were mitred and splined. ‘It
ended up being extraordinarily complicated – and the time processing so much timber!’
Did she achieve her aim in attending the open studio? ‘It feels good to make and create things,’ she said. ‘It was an opportunity as a hobbyist to work full time on a project with no distractions because at home you’re always getting pulled away.’
Cat Cook, WA
After completing a degree in fine arts and photography, Cat Cook, 29 went on to study industrial design
at TAFE in Perth. At the same time she worked part-time at Perth Wood School as a woodworking technician and teacher. ‘I really enjoy tactile, hands-on work and I enjoy teaching too because I get to meet different people’, she said.
Taking six weeks out of a working life required support from an employer, and with encouragement from friends and family as well, Cat applied for the program. ‘I like to bite off more than I can chew and I wanted to give myself a project in a situation where I could be challenged and learn. And I’d heard so much about Kelly Parker and Michael Fortune. I also wanted to come to a new place and be amongst people of different backgrounds.’
Cat had kept her idea of what to make ‘fairly loose’ so she could be ‘open to exploring and kind of sponge it all up. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try things that I’d heard of, but not had the opportunity to do. With Michael being the king of curves I really wanted to explore as much of that as possible.’
Cat’s cabinet is a cylindrical form in New Zealand red beech with complex curves and doors that overlap in a wave motion. ‘A lot went into building jigs and formers in the lead-up’, she said. ‘I’m happy with where I got up to, and I’m going to keep working on it when I get home.’
‘Coming here has inspired me to keep on growing, and branch out and work more on my own stuff. It’s been great to be in a situation where you can keep adding to the utility belt, so to speak...and the school
is stunning, everyone’s been super nice and hospitable. I mean to open up the roll-a-door and have that for your view for six weeks – hell yeah!”
Ben Grant, Raglan, NZ
For someone whose day job is making furniture to order, taking part in the residency was a chance to freewheel. For Ben Grant that meant taking time out to concentrate on his own design processes, and specifically to develop a chair design.
Initial hesitations over taking time out from paid work, as well as outlaying for the residency were dispelled. ‘It was quite a hard thing to get over at the beginning, but in the first week I realised there was just so much here to learn and it was totally worth it,’ said Ben.
While his main reason for attending the residency was to develop his design skills, Ben also wanted ‘an experience’ and ‘to see everyone else’s approach’. Diving in the first week was hard, as was the final week with the drive to complete, however even then Ben said that being able to focus on the task away from normal life pressures made the time enjoyable.
Over the six weeks Ben worked through small and full scale mockups through to prototypes for a chair design that
he knows will continue to evolve. ‘I did come with a reasonably firm idea but tried to approach it with fresh ideas.’
Processes such as steambending and bent lamination were tackled for the first time, as were pyrography and gilding techniques learnt from Kelly Parker. While developing the one chair design no less than seven jigs were made, while 10 to 15 profiles were used for shaping.
What was his main learning? ‘I always thought that you designed at the beginning, committed and then went for it, but here I’ve learnt that the design process happens throughout the whole piece, and onwards to the next.’
Ernest Angelo, Indiana, USA
Retired petroleum engineer and a self-described ‘Mr Mom’, Ernest Angelo’s hobby has been working wood for some 15 years. Timed to coincide with a wedding anniversary celebration trip, this was an opportunity to sign up for what has been his third learning experience with Michael Fortune.
Ernest’s specific aim was to learn more about the process of design using exoskeletons for which Michael has become famous.’ With a method like this in your toolkit you can develop not just the outline and volume of a piece, but also design the means to make it. And there was more: ‘Michael has an eight step method that eliminates or minimises the chance of having brain freeze – you know, when you sit down to design and your brain just goes blank.’
‘A lot of it is problem solving and I’ve also heard the art of woodworking is hiding your mistakes’, said Ernest, affirming well known principles of woodworking. Watching how others solve problems and learning how designs and processes can evolve over time also gives a deeper level of understanding which leads to more confidence.
For a part-time woodworker a six week immersion is akin to spending possibly decades toiling in trial and error. If you are serious about learning about your passion, the value of an experience like this becomes clear.
Did the piece he would take home in parts resemble the one he had in mind to make? ‘The only thing I have from my original drawing are the two angles coming together like that’, said Ernest with crossed hands.’
Sam Harrap, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
More than anyone, Sam Harrap knows the truth of the Michael Fortune fire hose analogy. Back in Canada, Sam worked as a firefighter while studying at the university of British Columbia for a degree in wood products processing. Even then there was a plan to be a full time maker of fine furniture, but getting a formal education had to come first.
Although well equipped with technical information about wood and manufacturing principles as well as a year’s experience working as a cabinetmaker, this was Sam’s first ‘artistic experience’ in building a skillset for his new career.
His main aim had been ‘to push my technical and design skills and to connect with people that are into it, to network with the community,’ but there had been other benefits as well. ‘It’s more of an attitude adjustment rather than technical skills, more consideration of the design process.’ It’s been playful as well, a lot of fun and exploration and letting your personality come out. It’s really easy to get trapped into making stuff that everyone else is doing.’
Coming to the residency with a fixed idea of what he would make had limited him to some degree, said Sam. ‘One big part I took away is that if you’re starting to think more about (the making process) at the start of your design process you’re kind of sunk. There’s always a way to figure out how to do it.
If you’re already thinking of how you’re going to do it, it’s going to restrict your design.’
Peter Bell, Perth, WA
For Peter Bell, a software and electronics engineer, woodworking has been a 20 year long hobby that took off when he first attended a design course with Michael Fortune in Perth some years ago. ‘Before then it was always straight lines
and 90° angles’, he explained. Since doing this I’m getting into curves and compound angles – stuff that makes things look nice and flowing.’
While open to all, intermediate knowledge was a prerequisite for attending the residency. Applicants were required to describe their experience and supply photos of their work. ‘You have to be able to take an idea and run with it yourself, using machines and setting out and cutting,’ Peter said.
Making a chair was a first, even though he had a basic idea for what he wanted to achieve. ‘I’ve never done this level of compound joinery and angled drilling. I knew I needed extra help. Quite a bit
of my time was spent building seemingly simple jigs to hold the back legs at right angles.’
One of the main benefits of the residency, Peter said, was observing and even videoing what others were doing, the processes and techniques used. ‘When someone reaches a point where they need a new technique we’d get called over to watch.’
Asked why he invested to travel to New Zealand to spend six weeks
in a workshop situation, his answer was simple, ‘because I enjoy it. I get such a buzz from finally finishing something, working out how to do it. It’s such a nice feeling.’
Stuart Faulkner, NSW
What can a lauded designer maker and the principle of Heartwood Creative Woodworking, a Sydney woodworking school, expect to gain from undertaking an experience such as this? ‘From a maker’s point of view, you only make the way that you know until somebody shows you a different way to come at it’, said Stuart. ‘And that gets amplified the more you stay in your own workshop. Creativity is a big part of what we do, and isolation can be a good thing because you can create a very unique style, but getting influence from others and seeing the way they look at it is so enriching for your practice.’
Not all experienced makers are willing to learn more from others however. ‘When it comes to ego, you have to throw that away’, said Stuart, ‘because that is the biggest inhibitor to learning. All that has to go to the side. Everybody should do this and I’m going to look for another opportunity to do it again with another teacher that I admire.’
‘The investment of money spent and time away from a business is considerable, but the rewards are there. I know that I’ll go back with a whole new swag of tips, tricks, ideas and jigs that will enrich our workshop, and not only me, but the teachers around me and the students will get the flow-on effect.’
Stuart came with an already developed design for a low-set occasional chair and over the course of the six weeks took it in a new direction through an intense process of sketching, mockups and prototypes.
‘You often don’t see other ways of doing things until you give yourself that space,’ he reiterated. ‘This has been my time to come away from the workshop, to close the door on that and really invest in my own progress and enrichment. This has been my time to experiment, my time to learn and grow. It’s been brilliant.’
* Michael Fortune’s article Anything But Square in issue 105 of Australian Wood Review looked the construction of exo- and endoskeletons as a means to construction curved and angled forms
Learn more about the Centre for Fine Woodworking in New Zealand at www.cfw.co.nz
Processes encountered by each of the eight participants were cause for impromptu discussion and demonstrations.