Maker in wood, Eleanor Lakelin, uses dead and decommissioned trees felled in the British Isles to carve truly breathtaking contemporary vessels and sculptural forms for the home
Your bowls and vessels are exquisite. Have you always enjoyed working with wood?
As a child growing up in rural Wales I spent a great deal of time in the woods, collecting wizened roots, weather-beaten driftwood and other naturally sculptural objects. I originally trained as a teacher and taught in various countries in Europe and West Africa before my love of wood drew me to retrain as a cabinet-maker.
When did you design your first piece?
I first started designing vessels in 1998 using off-cuts from large furniture projects. Before I trained as a woodturner. I would pay someone to turn a shallow bowl shape in the top surface.
Where did you train?
I completed my cabinet-making training at London College of Furniture/Guildhall University in 1998, and made bespoke furniture for ten years before I went on a five-day Bowl-Turning course with Dave Regester at West Dean College. I later honed and developed my artistic practice through a series of masterclasses with sculptors, carvers and wood-turners between 2011 and 2012.
You work exclusively using dead and decommissioned wood locally felled in the British Isles. Can you tell us about that.
I have made it my challenge to only work with woods felled in the British Isles. Much of the wood I use is sourced in South London, where I live, or from a sustainable woodmill in Northampton.
I have a deep-rooted interest in conservation. I’ve always set out to work in a sustainable way and the provenance of the wood is of particular importance to me. I was recently commissioned by the National Trust to create a series of vessels from a great cedar planted by the Duke of Wellington which had to be felled at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. It was fascinating to work with a wood with such historical significance. To me every tree is imbued with history and has story to tell.
What inspires your designs?
A great many things. I am interested in the way natural elements and processes layer and colour wood and how the passage of time is etched into the fibres of the material. I peel back bark to reveal the organic chaos that can exist in the material itself or build up layers of texture through carving and sandblasting. I use the vessel form and surface pattern to explore the layers and fissures between creation and decay, the erosion of nature and our relationship to the Earth.
Can you talk us through the design and making process from sourcing the wood right through to the final piece?
The processes vary greatly and are very individual to each piece, but here is an example of the concept and process involved in a recent work titled ‘Chasing Silk’ created for The New Craftsmen, Bowls of Britain installation in 2015.
I was recently commissioned by the National Trust to create a series of vessels from a great cedar planted by the Duke of Wellington
Black Mulberry trees apparently became firmly established in Britain when King James I attempted to kick-start a native silk industry. The king wanted to wrest the monopoly of silk-making from the French by cultivating mulberries – the sole food of silkworms. He had a four-acre mulberry garden planted in an area to the north of present-day Buckingham Palace, tended by the King’s Mulberry Men. There is still a street called Mulberry Walk, just off the King’s Road, Chelsea. Ten thousand trees were imported from all over Europe, and the king required landowners “to purchase and plant mulberry trees at the rate of six shillings per thousand”.
But James made the mistake – some say he was deliberately wrongly advised – of ordering the black mulberry instead of the white version. The latter is the natural food of silkworms but grows less well in England. Within a few years the silkworm project failed, though the mulberry garden survived and became a pleasure ground before being swept away in the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace. The descendants of this brief Jacobean fashion for mulberries can still be found in the gardens of some stately homes, including Syon House and Charlton House in Blackheath near where the Mulberry for this piece, blew down.
Cut to size from a gnarled piece of wind-blown Mulberry, this piece was turned on the lathe and hollowed out leaving the natural edge of the tree as the top of the bowl. The bark was carefully prised off this edge leaving the organic and contorted shapes formed by slicing through the burred sections of wood. Off the lathe, the exterior was textured to reflect the natural growth of the burr and the piece left to move and contort to its final shape.
What challenges do you face?
Making takes time and finding time to make is my biggest challenge. I’m in the centre of a constant whirlwind of paperwork, exhibitions and family life. Amid the chaos there are moments of self-doubt and moments of joy. Despite the fact that I work so hard, I’m still always amazed when everything actually comes together in the end.
Do you have a favourite piece?
I’ve been enjoying working on a new series of works which explore erosion, including my first site-specific sculpture, which features three textured Green Oak spheres. That led to an initial series of ‘Eroding Forms’ in Cedar which were exhibited at Future Heritage, curated by Corinne Julius at Decorex last year.
Describe the space where you work. How important is your working environment and do you prefer music or silence?
In 2011 I won a space for a year at Cockpit Arts in Deptford though The Cockpit Arts / Worshipful Company of Turners Award. Cockpit is a ‘creative business incubator’ for designer-makers – so there are advisors on site which is particularly helpful when first starting up and trying to position your work. After the award ended, I kept the studio on and I have most of my equipment there. Being surrounded by other woodworkers, ceramicists, leather workers, weavers and other talented makers is wonderful after years spent working alone. I like listening to music but the machinery drowns it out. I still have my Graduate bowl-turner, bandsaw and my Mastercarver in my workshop at home – where I sometimes work to fit around family life. Both places are full of bones, gourds, pods, wood shavings and mess. I dream of having everything in one place but that will have to wait for now.
How long does each piece take to make?
It can range from several days to weeks depending on the type of project.
Proudest achievement so far?
It is hard to say. I was thrilled when I was nominated for the Perrier-Jouët Arts Salon Prize in 2014, which felt like a turning point, as well as being represented by Sarah Myerscough Gallery at Collect and by Taste Contemporary Craft at Artmonte-carlo this year.
Where you can your work be bought?
As well as the show mentioned, such as Collect and Artmonte-carlo, I sell work through specialist galleries and in particular The New Craftsmen, CAA Contemporary Applied Arts. I also sell pieces direct at shows, such as Chelsea Flower Show and the Cockpit Arts Open Studios and have a list of forthcoming shows on my website.
Any projects in the pipeline?
I will be one of six British makers exhibiting at Nature Lab, A Future Made showcase at Design Miami/ Basel from 14-19 June this year. A partnership between Crafts Council and The New Craftsmen, Nature Lab will be a Design Curio, a new exhibition platform for Design Miami/ Basel. I’ll exhibit alongside talents including Emily Gardiner, Jochen Holz, Joseph Harrington, Marcin Rusak and Marlène Hussoid, each maker having developed new techniques to create ‘objects of wonder’ using natural materials.
Images courtesy of Cockpit Arts/© Alun Callender Photography