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Artist Elise McLauchlan On Music, Mistake Making, And The Inner Workings of Wood.

Photos by Rebecca McColgan

Artist Elise McLauchlan carves wood bowls, vases, plates and candleholders with stunningly simple lines. When I first saw them, I was immediately besotted and doubly excited to discover that, not only does McLauchlan sell her wares at a number of Vancouver shops, she also offers woodcarving courses for those who are not satisfied by simply purchasing, and want to learn to carve for themselves.

The course, which teaches participants to develop their talent by carving and texturing their own bowl or chopping board, costs $130 and includes everything you need to continue your new skill at home. Watch out for upcoming Vancouver classes in the very near future. In the meantime, get to know a little about the artist below…

What does your workshop smell like?

It often depends on the wood type that I’m working with that day. Maple has a lovely subtle, earthy smell that makes you feel like you could be in Muji; oak smells like pickles, which makes me hungry; and black walnut smells truly terrible. I usually smell like the wood I’ve been working with for the rest of the day but all in all I’d say my workshop smells good (I think).

What’s on your carving playlist right now?

I’m glad you asked! Music is a huge part of work for me and it makes me look forward to getting up and getting straight into the workshop. Sometimes I think that my main motivation for working for myself was the ability to have full control of the music throughout the day. I listen to a lot of Motown and Soul, Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black is one of my favourite albums of all time. I’m from England, so grew up with a lot of The Beatles, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac. I’ll always put Rumours on if I have a busy day and lots of work to get through, but right now I’m going through the A Tribe Called Quest back catalogue – perfect carving tracks. I could go on and on, but I’d definitely say I wouldn’t get half as much work done without music and podcasts.

You have two main styles of carving: textured and smooth. The smooth finish reminds me of a polished beach pebble while the textured version is like the surface of still water being pelted with heavy rain or a fast, cold wind. How do you know which finish is coming? Does your mood dictate, or does the wood tell you what’s up?

I tend to let the wood decide the final finish. Sometimes the grain is so beautiful on its own that it just wouldn’t work putting a texture over it, and sometimes it feels like simple straight grains need a little more. The simple grains are also the smoothest to carve, so it makes sense for multiple reasons. I’ve had some carving regrets in my time when, after hand carving, I’ll spend hours sanding it back to a smooth surface. That’s a tough one to swallow. I’m currently carving an entire bench seat so I’m really hoping I like it at the end!

Wood carving can be relaxing – even meditative. Are you able to detect the point when you move from concentration to mediation, or do you just suddenly look down and realize you’ve been in the zone for half-a-bowl’s worth of work?

Wood carving is incredibly meditative. I find it a really useful tool (pardon the pun) for forced intentional time that thankfully comes naturally to me. I’ve tried meditating with traditional methods and find it next to impossible. Wood carving is the perfect balance of having to focus for the sake of your fingers’ safety but also being able to switch off enough to give your mind a break. You also get a nice bowl at the end! I find myself doing a lot more hand carving when I need a break from the physical side of woodworking and a mental break from the world.

“You have to be patient, ready to adapt, accepting of flaws and always work with intention.”

Wood is such a forgiving material to work with, and mistakes often result in something even more beautiful. Nothing feels permanent; you can always go back to tweak things or create something different. It grows, warps and changes shape. The final result is always unique and, to me, always beautiful. No piece is the same and to someone who makes things by hand that feels so special – it truly is one of a kind. Often you’ll unearth something that you had no idea was in the wood: cracks, knots, insect marks, and even the spalting caused by a fungus is beautiful. Sometimes I feel like I have a firm grasp of how the wood will behave and I think I understand the inner workings but then something unpredictable will happen when I’m working with a bowl blank. It never gets boring and I’m constantly learning. I put so much into every piece, as I understand the amount of effort it took for the tree to grow and I want to honour that the best I can by making something that someone will hopefully treasure. Having said all of that, my mum will tell you I learnt the value of wood when I put a hot cup on her coffee table. It didn’t end well for me.

As a craft, do you feel there are similarities between carving and knitting, or would you say carving and ceramics are closer cousins? (Or am I way off base with both?)

I’m in awe of ceramicists and knitters. I’ve tried both and found them impossible. Knitting baffled my brain and the only thing I’ve made in ceramics is a porcelain hammer, which caused a stir at Toronto customs when I moved to Canada (yes, I brought it with me). I feel like the concept and processes are similar to woodworking. Until you know what you’re doing and have gotten lots of practice, they seem next to impossible. Learning to knit is often my New Years resolution and I usually give up after one YouTube video. Maybe 2023 will be the year I branch out.

What is the most beautiful word or concept you have encountered through the process of learning to work with wood?

“Intentional”. Not making things just for the sake of it; using the right piece of wood for the right bowl form; valuing the material and using it to create something that can be kept for a lifetime. You have to be patient, ready to adapt, accepting of flaws and always work with intention.

How long does it realistically take for a novice to pick up enough skill to be able to make an object like a candlestick or bowl?

My first woodturning class was in university during the practical side of my furniture design course. We got an intro and we each gave it a quick try – I was instantly hooked. It felt surprisingly easy to pick up once I was over the fear of the spinning chunk of wood flying off the lathe. I’m sure I made a few candlestick holders that day that might not have looked pretty but did the job. I hadn’t made a bowl before moving to Canada. I did a two-day bowl making course here, in BC, and that was enough for me to teach myself the rest. I’ve had a tool in my hand ever since!

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