Eleanor Lakelin: a protean maker in wood

Eleanor LakelinAfter having travelled widely African and European roads teaching English as a second language, Eleanor Lakelin eventually came back home. While still teaching, she decided to take woodwork and plaster evening courses in the early 1990’s. It rekindled an old passion of hers. Growing up as a little girl in mid-Wales, Eleanor used to collects shells, bones and driftwood as a hobby. A dexterous father, renovating furniture in his spare time, had familiarised her with the process of working wood. She enjoyed the experience of these few evening classes so much that she decided to pursue her interest further. A fortunate opportunity arose as she was offered redundancy from teaching. Now, was the time to tackle her new found love.

african bowlShe studied cabinet-making at City and Islington College from 1995 to 1996 and then went on to the London College of Furniture at the Guildhall University from 1996 to 1998. She finished her studies crowned with success as she won the First annual Austin’s Prize for craftsmanship in wood in 1998.  She then  started designing and making furniture (tables, bookcases, lamps) for retail outlets and worked on private and public commissions. An article in Livingetc (“Bright Young Things”) gave her a head start. While working from her first studio in Millwall, Bermondsey, she hooked up with the company next door, a scenery company working hand in hand on West End productions. This is how she got involved in a few London musicals and plays making props and furniture for the sets.

One day, as she was making a table, she didn’t have a wood turner available to make the table’s four legs. The clock was ticking. A fortuitous series of events then followed that decided Eleanor’s next move. She heard that someone was getting rid of his lathe. Pressed for time, she took the lathe and decided just this once to make the fairly simple legs herself. She was instantly hooked on turning the wood herself. She went on a 5 day course to learn how to turn bowls and from then on practised by herself over and over in her spare time. She ended up with quite an assortment of wooden bowls in her workshop: a shed that she had arranged at the back of her garden.

bleached bowlEleanor’s life takes interesting turns as she makes serendipitous encounters along the way. Once, while she was away, a friend of hers, who had come to feed her chickens, brought a friend along. It turned out that the friend was none other than Tim Jones, the owner of a small gallery (Window 135). Curious to know what Eleanor was up to, he asked to see her wooden pieces stacked in the shed and upon seeing them decided to exhibit them in his front window. As the story continues, a passerby spotted her pieces in the gallery and alerted Eleanor to the fact that Cockpit Arts had a bursary for a wood turner. She applied and got selected! Along with Frank Boggis-Rolfe, she was the recipient of the Cockpit Arts/Worshipful Company of Turners Award 2011. She subsequently, got offered a place in the centre.

Cockpit Arts Deptord and Cockpit Arts Holborn are charities that act as business incubators, which is a rarity in London. They strive to support and nurture designer-makers from all backgrounds through all stages of their career. Eleanor was offered a workshop for free for one year in Cockpit Arts Deptford at the end of which she could decide whether or not to stay. Cockpit Arts works like a hive for emerging or confirmed talents. Each artist benefits from the expertise and networks of the other artists in situ. Members of Cockpit Arts can attend a variety of courses ranging from practical to business oriented. They can experience the discipline of self-employment and understand the principles of marketing and commercial practice all the while pursuing and perfecting their skills in their chosen field. Eleanor learnt how to make a newsletter, set up her own accounting and developed her craft by being offered a few days training with wood turner Nick Agar who taught her how to make holes in wood. Thanks to him, she learnt how to explore the various possibilities of wood as a decorative object. From the moment she set up business and studio at the Cockpit Arts centre in September 2011, Eleanor abandoned cabinet-making and turned completely to working wood on a lathe and carving to make both functional objects and decorative vessels and forms.

decorative bowlsWood turning is an ancient craft. Amongst the most famous wood turners, we can count David Pye, the celebrated Professor of Furniture Design at The Royal College of Art who was an accomplished wood turner and carver. Another well respected wood turner who heightened the craft to the level of art was Bert Marsh. In schools and colleges, there always used to be a lathe but today they are being sold off probably because of health and safety restrictions. As a response, wood turner clubs where you can learn this age-old skill have popped up around the country. Some of them such as the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain and the Worshipful Company of Turners are amongst the most supportive.

Being an ethically conscious citizen, Eleanor only uses salvaged wood or wood that had to be taken down. Furthermore, she tries to source it as locally (within 3 miles)  as possible. She has also forged special links with other wood searchers across the country. One of her suppliers is in Northamptonshire (English Hardwood) and the other one in  Lincolnshire. She typically uses sycamore, ash, chestnut and holly. She enjoys the process so much that there is no stopping her. She bleaches, sculpts, scorches, stitches and textures the raw material as she fancies it, exploring and testing the wood’s limitations and properties along the way. As she constantly trains herself, she is very curious of other artists working with wood. She counts Michael Hosaluk and Michael Peterson amongst the artists that have influenced her work.  She also takes inspiration from blown up pictures of pollen and seeds as shown in Rob Kesseler‘s book Pollen and from landscape photographs taken from the air as in Aerial photographs from William Garnett.

scorched and holed

Teaching others how to lathe wood is not part of her foreseeable future as she feels she has still so much to learn, but she is very busy on more than one front. This past weekend saw her represented at this year’s COLLECT at the Saatchi Gallery by Sarah Mysercough Fine Art Gallery ‘whose ethos lies in selecting traditional skills based artists that produce contemporary innovative design and craft objects. Eleanor will be present at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show as part of an artisan retreat from May 20 to 24, 2014. As The New Craftsmen shop arrives in Mayfair on June 5, she will be part of the experience. From June 3-19, she will be at The Carving of the Wood at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham. The exhibition explores the way some of today’s top makers carve wood. And, ô, none other than Liberty commissioned her to create a range of vessels made from London’s trees which will be on sale this autumn.

In the meantime, she wouldn’t miss an opportunity to be part of the Cockpit Arts Summer Open studios taking place in Holborn from June 6 to 8 and in Deptford from June 13 to 15. If you come and take a peek at the extraordinary range of artists that will have an open studio on those days, you should take this opportunity to visit the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where they have dance and art performances. Visiting The A.P.T Gallery and Arthub Studios followed by a stroll by the creekside in the sunshine will be the end to a perfect day.


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