Interview with Steve Howlett, professional wood worker & sculptor

Steve Howlett

Steve Howlett

I work with wood and have done so professionally for over 30 years; first as a joiner, then furniture-maker, furniture-restorer, wood-turner and, finally, sculptor. I'm also a musician, love jazz, good music generally and walking in the mountains. I live with my wife, textile artist Rita Howlett and our two dogs, half way up a mountain in Snowdonia.






Did you undertake formal training in college or within the industry, or did you find your way into crafts via a different route?

Various tube forms, Steve Howlett, 2005

Various tube forms, Steve Howlett, 2005

At the age of 19, I realised I wanted to work with wood, either making furniture or clinker built boats. The only training I could find was as a trainee joiner which pushed me, unresisting, towards furniture making. I left after two years, unbelievably bored and frustrated, but able to make doors, windows and stairs. I've had no formal "arts training" and dropped art as a school subject when I was 14. My arts education has come from my wife, my friends, my eyes and my gut instinct.


How would you describe your work and your position within the Crafts world?


Large, flared tube form, Steve Howlett, 2000

Large, flared tube form, Steve Howlett, 2000

I don't feel that I am part of the Crafts world these days and the Crafts world doesn't appear to think I am either. The only way I can describe my work now is that I make sculpture. I'm sure many will argue that my work is not sculpture but I can't think what else it is. Maybe "bent bits of wood which have the ability to move people" might fit the bill.

I try to marry the predictable, natural movement of the wood as it shrinks with slowly developing, highly refined forms and the results these days tend to be almost figurative at times, very organic and sensual.


What type of material do you prefer to use?

I have only ever worked in wood. My grandfather was a woodwork teacher from a long line of carpenters/builders so I suppose it must be in the genes. My favourite timber has to be holly. It shrinks a great deal as it dries which gives me the extreme distortions of form that I'm after in my work. It is also not a very "woody" wood and often the finished piece appears to be made from porcelain, glass, leather or bone. I love this visual ambiguity and the way it plays with people's preconceived perceptions.

Flared & waisted tube form, Steve Howlett, 2005

Flared & waisted tube form, Steve Howlett, 2005

Annular form, Steve Howlett, 2005

Annular form, Steve Howlett, 2005




 

What would you most like to make that you haven't made so far?

Apart from money? The next piece. Which is not as facetious an answer as it may appear. I'm on the verge of moving away from using the lathe and have started carving from a stationary block. I want to develop the forms that have gone before but without the restriction of an enforced circular form in one plane.


Is it harder or easier to make a living from what you do now compared to when you began?

Two large hollow tube forms, Steve Howlett, 2005

Two large hollow tube forms, Steve Howlett, 2005

Definitely harder, the word impossible is probably a more accurate description. Without some extremely generous private patronage I would have succumbed to serious debt whilst being lauded for my work and been forced to find another way of life.

When I started turning wood over 20 years ago I was producing functional items of exceptional quality. I was at the lathe every day churning out lemon squeezers, kitchen equipment, fruit and salad bowls, just as wood turners are supposed to do and I was just able to earn a meagre living. As my work has developed, become more original and ground-breaking, I have started producing work that is apparently uncategorisable by the arts/crafts establishment and consequently it is easier for them to ignore it rather than embrace it.


www.stevehowlett.com

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