Friday 27 February 2009
Natalie Kikken profiles inventive French woodturner Benoit Averly
French turner Benoit Averly became a professional woodturner only five years ago but has already made an impact across the globe with his sculptural and mesmerising pieces. However, he didn't originally set out to be a woodturner. It was only after enrolling in a course after finishing school that he caught the bug.
"I spent a few years doing odd jobs such as working in a vineyard, a botanical store, a slaughterhouse and a hotel," reflects Benoit. "I also travelled around Europe and spent a lot of time in America and Canada where I became fluent in English.
"I had arranged to travel to Spain so I could learn Spanish," he continues. "Before leaving, I thought it would be a good idea to take a course of some sort so it would be easier to find a job. During this time, I met a friend of my parents who had completed a three day workshop with Gilbert Buffard - she had made a candlestick and box under his guidance which I really liked. I was intrigued so I enrolled on the course myself and ended up spending around eight weeks in his workshop. I never made it to Spain in the end," he says with a smile.
"After working shifts in a factory and seeing too many people unhappy with what they do, I realised that everyday is a chance to do something satisfying so I decided to pursue the idea of working with wood and to explore the creative aspect of woodturning," he says.
"To develop my skills, I took further classes with Richard Raffan and Mike Hosaluk," he continues. "Richard has been, and remains, my teacher, mentor and friend. He taught me so many things about being a great woodturner. He covered many technical aspects: he showed me how to be fast with the tools; he explained the elements of design; we discussed how to market my work; and I also learned about demonstrating. Richard taught me that there is no proper technique - if it works, it is the right technique. I also learned that working as a professional woodturner was in fact possible - I just needed to believe in myself."
Benoit worked as Richard's workshop assistant in 2004 which involved working on different lathes, monitoring students, sharpening tools, and some translation.
He found it a truly valuable and fantastic experience.
"I learnt so many skills from my time with Richard and I continue to come across new challenges. At first it was mainly technical problems, then it was more design-related problems, then it was a mix of both," he says. "A current issue I have is trying to market my work. I didn't know much about it so I learnt as I went along.
"In France, many craftsmen have stopped working in their field as it has become too difficult to make a living from their craft. I want to be able to carry on doing this and for my work to continually improve."
Benoit is achieving greater exposure thanks to winning several prestigious awards. In 2006, he won the Grand Prix departemental de la SEMA, a craft contest across every region. He also won the Concours Jeunes Createurs Award out of 210 participants. Along with 11 other selected artists, he was given the opportunity to display his work at the professional trade show Maison et Objet in Paris. From this, many articles were written about him and his emerging talent and this helped Benoit show off his work to a foreign market as well as several galleries.
"These awards really boosted my confidence and to top it all off, the American Association of Woodturners unexpectedly gave me a purchase award in recognition of my work. One of my pieces was bought and added to their permanent collection," he reveals. "These awards gave me great exposure and showed me that my career choice was heading in a positive direction."
Benoit's work continues to flourish. He states Richard Raffan's and Liam Flynn's work as major influences. "Liam makes some of the most beautiful hollow forms I have ever seen," he gushes. "I also met Bill Luce recently and I really admire his work. Looking at his shapes and bowls is like a lesson in itself.
"My workshop is in Burgundy, which is where I grew up and still live," he says. "My workshop is about 30m x 35m2 (98 x 115ft) and I often work with the wood found in my area such as ash (Fraxinus excelsior), oak (Quercus robur), walnut (Juglans regia) and cherry (Prunus avium).
I am lucky there are many forests in the area so this means a lot of wood. I don't often work with exotic woods as they are expensive, people don't know much about them, and as I tend to dye many of my pieces, I don't feel like I need to use them. Also, we are never sure where they come from and how the forests are managed."
Benoit admits that his work is primarily about lines and shape. He is highlighting less and less of the grain pattern and likes to apply texture. He is also concerned with contrast and precision.
"I want the piece to go where I want it to go, and not where the wood wants to take me," he explains.
"For my work, I combine elements of both turning and carving. I simply see woodturning as carving with a lathe. When I need something round, I use the lathe. Woodturning is not a religion and I don't have a contract with the lathe so I don't feel like I have to use it all the time.
"For my carvings, I use an Arbotech and a Dremel with a Rotary Chisel made by Don Hines (from Creative Technologies). I think this is one of the best bits there is. I use many different finishes on my work: for black, I use leather dye or a cellulose-based dye; I ebonise some pieces with vinegar and rust; and I also use Danish oil and a wax on most of my work.
"Other equipment I use includes a chainsaw, a large band saw and a Short Bed Stubby lathe. My hand tools are quite simple and I don't own many fancy tools. One of my favourite tools is the skew chisel and I use this a lot when I turn."
Benoit recognises the importance of demonstrations, workshops and symposiums as an opportunity to share knowledge and skills.
"Demonstrating makes up a significant part of my woodturning schedule. I love the demonstrating arena as it is made up of wonderful people and it encourages the exchanges of different ideas," he says. "It is primarily about sharing and it a great way to understand the woodturning process. I learned a lot through demonstrations so it is nice to pass on this knowledge with others. I have also had the opportunity to demonstrate in various countries such as the USA, the Netherlands and Spain.
"I will also be in the UK next summer at the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain (AWGB) International Festival of Woodturning in Loughbourough.
"I sell my creations at shows, exhibitions, shops and galleries, although many people who buy my work don't care if it is turned or not," he says. "Most of the time, they probably don't even know what woodturning is! However, my aim is to produce a variety of work and to always improve. Every thing I am doing is a new challenge."
Benoit's exceptional work continues to impress and he has an incredibly bright future.