Robert O Connor in Profile
Friday 26 August 2011
Tegan Foley speaks to Irish turner Robert O'Connor who turns a range of functional items and hollow forms alongside his full-time profession as a kitchen designer
It was a pleasure to profile another Irish turner, but I have to admit that I wasn't as familiar with Robert's work as I am with Billy Henry's, the last Irish turner I profiled. However, after some research and trawling the internet, I came across many examples of his work and started to build up a picture of what type of turner Robert is. I learnt that this turner is a member of the Crafts Council of Ireland, and his work is available from various Irish galleries. So I set about asking Robert a few questions to try and get a feel for his work and what makes him tick.
Robert begins by explaining that he was introduced to woodwork at an early age by his Father, and in his early teens, decided to study the subject in Second Level School where woodwork was an examination subject as part of the curriculum: "At age 14, I made and fitted my first kitchen, a business, which I was later to concentrate on, and which I continue to this day."
Now that I had established Robert's background and found out that he works as a kitchen designer, I was interested to delve further and find out how he came to discover turning through his career. He explains that in the early years of kitchen design, galley rails were all the rage and the requirement to make small spindles was ongoing. “As well as these, I also made stair spindles and newel posts to order. That essentially was my introduction to woodturning and I was self-taught," he tells me. Robert goes on to explain that as trends changed, the woodturning requirement disappeared and, for a number of years, he didn't do any turning - he even decided to sell his lathe as he couldn't conceive that he would ever find another use for it. I must admit that I was quite surprised when Robert told me this, as usually, people go on to discover turning and fall in love with it, or so have the turners I've profiled! It is interesting to speak to a turner who breaks these rules and does things differently. So, I was even more eager to hear how Robert re-discovered turning after his spindle and newel post making days. He explains that some years later, a chance meeting with William Stedmond, a co-founder of The Irish Woodturners' Guild, was to rekindle his interest in woodturning: "Soon after this meeting, I joined The Irish Woodturners’ Guild and have, since then, taken a very keen interest in the craft of woodturning, which now works to complement my business," he finishes.
Types of work
I understand by looking at the Crafts Council of Ireland website that Robert produces a number of forms including bowls, hollow forms as well as wall hangings. I asked him to describe his repertoire further, and, according to Robert, he produces two types of work: "The first type is functional pieces which cater for the household/domestic market. These pieces range from the classic fruit bowl/salad bowl, lamps, clocks, etc. down to the humble bottle stoppers and foot massagers." Robert says that these production turnings help to pay for the woodturning overhead costs he incurs. Then there are the artistic pieces, which unfortunately, Robert explains there is little demand for at present: "These are largely hollow forms and significantly, it was for these items that I won several Open National Competitions." I was eager to find out more about these competitions and other accolades Robert has won, but first I wanted to learn more about his inspiration behind the artistic pieces he creates.
Unlike a lot of turners I have profiled, Robert tells me that he doesn't get any particular inspiration from a direct source. However, he explains that he likes to experiment with design, form and finish: "Possibly there is a segment of my brain that is always working on shapes and form, and I can often be found sketching on small bits of paper, or even on a beer mat while I sip the occasional drink." Inspiration can come from all around us, so it is interesting to see how people - especially turners - channel these creative ideas into new shapes, forms and finishes, all the while working with the timber and taking its natural characteristics into account. At this stage, to me, Robert's work seemed simple and uncomplicated but I had a feeling there was more to this turner than meets the eye.
He goes on to tell me about the change he felt with his turning. He explains that when he first started out on this path, it was all spindle turning: "Now, however, spindle work is but a very small part of my work. It has been replaced by bowl turning, largely to satisfy demand, and the turning of hollow forms for which I am best known," he says. I understand that Robert also likes to incorporate different materials with the wood, which helps to bring out the individuality of the natural elements. "I like to mix the traditional and contemporary. At present, I am veering very much towards the latter in the form of artistic pieces where experimentation is the predominant aspect or feature."
Robert explains how getting involved with a collaborative group really changed his style and thinking: "When I returned to woodturning after a break of some years, Willie Stedmond introduced me to bowl turning and at the time I remember being influenced by the master Irish bowl turner, Ciarán Forbes. His technique and flawless tool control on the inside of bowls was a definite influence."Robert also says that he very much admires Bert Marsh for his thin-walled forms.
Further inspiration came from the Irish Woodturners' Guild when they formed their Collaborative Chapter. Robert tells me that he went on to join this group and consequently found himself collaborating with people from different craft disciplines: "This was a great benefit as it opened my mind to new concepts, and spurred me on to trying new ideas and designs with my turning," he finishes.
This was later followed by The Craft Council Of Ireland when Robert embarked on a similar collaborative exercise. Robert explains that while challenging, this was a great experience and has definitely been a lasting influence on his work.
These two exercises helped Robert open his mind to different concepts and introduced different materials into his turnings.
I was intrigued to find out more about Robert's workshop, and I wondered if this was turning dominated or if the workshop was mostly dedicated to his kitchen design business. Robert explains that his is pretty much a custom-built workshop measuring 20 x 14ft. and has been described as minimalist: "It is devoid of clutter and houses the usual turning gear including a Vicmarc 300 lathe, a smaller Vicmarc 100 VL, bandsaw, grinder - on which Robert sharpens all tools freehand - a compressor, extraction system, bench press, drills, and much more. "Most of my other requirements are housed in fitted kitchen units and cupboards. I do have an adjacent building where all of my turning blanks are placed on shelves to air dry, usually for up to two years," he explains.
So what is Robert's work ethos and how does he go about creating his fine pieces? Robert says that he pays great attention to detail and never, ever, leaves any turned object out of his workshop that he cannot fully stand over:
"The customer is entitled to demand a quality product for their cash and I have to be 100 percent happy with each item in terms of design, shape, form and finish before it leaves my workshop."
In terms of where he sees his career heading, Robert says that this is always a process of redevelopment and experimentation: "I see myself experimenting with a range of materials to enhance my turnings. Things like stone, copper, silver, glass and even horn - but not using any endangered animal species - all of these are definite possibilities."
I wanted to find out more about the special tools which Robert uses
to complete his turnings so I asked him to name the three he could not do without. Robert explains that these would have to be the 10mm (3/8in) bowl gouge sharpened with a fingernail grind, a 25mm (1in) square scraper and the 25mm (1in) round scraper. These are used on a variety of forms from his platters and bowls to the classic hollow forms. And when I enquired as to how long, typically, it took Robert to complete one of his signature pieces, he informs me that this will vary depending on the complexity of the item: "A typical salad bowl might take two hours while a special hollow form could take days, or even weeks. That would not include time taken to cut out the blanks from the log, shape them with the bandsaw, or the roughing out stage of the whole process. Normally I would leave a wall thickness of 50mm (2in) at the roughing out stage and leave the blank to air dry for two years"
Career highs & lows
So what is the best thing about turning according to Robert? He tells me that the highlight of his career to date has got to be being able to impart his knowledge and skill to his children and seeing his 10-year-old son appear on television demonstrating woodturning. Robert says that he tends not to look for lows, but if he were to find one, it would be having a piece, on which he had spent something like 40 hours working, explode with the very last cut: "Now that was a real shocker!"
He goes on to tell me how he loves the challenge of producing classical, turned forms from windfallen local timbers and being able to extract the hidden beauty of the timber: "I find this particularly satisfying. I am always happy when I have brought out the special nature of the timber and have shown it to its best advantage in the completed piece," he explains.
In terms of promoting his work, Robert exhibits his turnings at various venues in Ireland including the Guinness Storehouse, Kilkenny Design Centre, the John F. Kennedy Arboretum, New Ross, Selskar Design, Wexford, and the historic Wicklow Gaol. Robert says that he is also fortunate to have a shop window fronting onto the Street in Gorey, from which he sells his turnings.
I took the opportunity at this stage to ask Robert more about the Open National Competition in which he took part. He explains that at the National Seminar, there exists four different category prizes as well as an overall winner. According to Robert, the different categories are beginners, spindle turning, open section and artistic: "In 2007, I won the Overall Prize, and in 2009 I won the artistic category, as well as being judged the Overall winner."
So what does Robert hope the future will hold? He replies that he wants to be the best he can be at what he does. In my opinion, Robert is already pretty much there but it's always good to have goals to aim for so we continue to push ourselves and realise our full potential. He further goes on to explain that he would also love to adopt a teaching role where he could pass on all that he has learned about the craft of woodturning: "I have just started giving classes and hopefully they will gain in popularity."
I hope that the future is successful for Robert and I have a very strong feeling that it will be. He seems to have a desire to achieve and I look forward to hearing how the teaching element pans out.