Feature Mondays - John Aitken in profile archive

Monday 31 October 2016

His headwear might be eye-catching, but it’s John Aitken’s work, which has recently gained a more emotional dimension, that holds the attention. Catherine Kielthy doffs her hat to him

Prepping for our interview with Trowbridge-based turner John Aitken, we have a list of questions as long as your arm, but let’s dispense with the obvious one first: what’s with the hat? John laughs warmly despite the fact he’s obviously been asked the same thing a thousand times already (we knew that, but how could we resist?). “Well, it goes back 10 years or so to Lackham College [in Wiltshire],” comes the answer, “and involves a certain famous woodturner who arrived for a day’s demonstrations in a floppy hat.” Not the most heinous of crimes, but a sartorial slippage that elicited a mischievous response from fellow demonstrators who all turned out in ridiculous hats the next day (the japes woodturners get up to!). John was encouraged by his co-conspirators to wear
a Victorian-style bowler on the basis ‘that he was in charge’.  

‘Contemplation’ comprises a jarra burl (Eucalyptus marginata) plate sat atop an African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) pyramid linked via a ring from an old computer. The lettering on the front is in the leaf, having been burnt out

He went along with it and, somehow, his millinery accoutrement stuck, so to speak. And here he is, several years on, still being quizzed about it. Bowler dispatched, we step back a bit further into John’s life, to 1971, only to discover his entry into the professional world of woodworking – and turning – wasn’t entirely of his own volition either. “I returned home from school one day and my dad announced that I was to be apprenticed as a joiner/wood machinist,” he recalls, “that’s how it was done in those days, no consultation and no choice.” It was, however, a good move and one that has stood him in good stead. “I had dabbled in turning at school, but the firm had some very skilled (and very old) craftsmen and we produced all the joinery needed to build a house. That included all the turned items, but in those days chucks were a rarity and most of the work was spindle work, face plate or jam chucked.”

Colourful additions
After serving his apprenticeship, John joined the armed forces and served around the world until late 1979. Back in civvies, he started his own business and built a good reputation locally for his joinery and furniture making. He still had a hankering for turning, however, and eventually purchased a Multico lathe. It proved a smart buy, especially when a bout of ill health forced him to take on lighter projects. Undeterred, he set about transforming what up until then had been a hobby into a professional business: “My love of wood meant I couldn’t imagine working in any other medium.” He practised hard and began honing his skills and held on to most of his customers by “just offering them a different service”.

John has recently been adding more colour and texture to many of his pieces

He’s never looked back, but his style has evolved considerably over the years. “I like the raw beauty of wood and, at one time, I was happy that everything I made was round and brown. These days, though, I like to colour and texture my work, adding gold leaf and pewter. I also use other items as embellishments and, as my sculptural work is evolving, turning on the lathe has become just one part of the production process, whereas in the beginning it was all of the process.”

John’s reverse turn grinder – one wheel is sisal while the other is sewn cotton – never fails to cause a stir at demos

A member of the AWGB and chairman of the Register of Professional Turners since April, John keeps abreast of changes and developments in the turning world and feels his work has been influenced by many factors. On a personal front, he has no doubt that his late father Edward, with whom he worked very closely, had a significant impact on his progress – “I certainly get my work ethic from him” – but he also admires the work of the older turners of the day as well as Bill Jones and Bert Marsh. The hollow forms made by Stuart Mortimer and Mark Sanger and the work of Les Thorne and Mark Hancock have also been influential. And he has high praise for Joey Richardson: “I love her extremely delicate work, it is simply stunning.” He insists, however, that all of the turners whose work or demonstrations he has seen have had some influence on the evolution of his work. “I like to watch other turning,” he says, “as I always come away enthused and impatient to get back in my own workshop and try out the things I have seen and adapt them for my own use.”
So, we’ve got to the workshop which, in John’s case, is at the bottom of the garden at the home where he and his wife Jenny have lived since they married in 1983. “I built it myself using 3ft-high concrete blocks and topped with timber framing.” For the most part, he uses his graduate lathe, but he also has an Axminster 330 that he “carts around for demos”; a circular saw; planer/thicknesser; bandsaw; and a small drum sander. There’s also a pillar drill, extraction and John has three bench grinders that form his sharpening system. “The ’shop has undergone some extensions and alterations, but I am never happier than when I am in there doing what I do.” Like so many turners, he makes or shapes his own tools to suit various applications; recent additions to his collection have included miniature chisels for creating small captive rings. “I get as much enjoyment out of making tools as I do turning,” he reveals. “And one tool arouses more interest than most of the others when I demonstrate. It’s a reverse run grinder that I use for sharpening my skew chisels and carving tools; it’s the one item I probably couldn’t live without.”

Personal dimension    
John candidly reveals that he has sometimes struggled to understand how to be inspired. “I would see beautiful work by other turners and wonder how they came up with their ideas and then, one day, I was moved to make a piece the like of which I had never made before. There was something inside me telling me to make it and telling me how it should be made and what it should represent and the feelings that I should put into it. It sounds a bit arty I know, but I did what my ‘inner voice’ was telling me to do and made it and it turned out very well.” Called ‘Motherlode’, it followed the death two years ago of John’s mother Joyce and is the first in what will be a four-part sculptural sequence. Comprising two woods and wire, it seems to scream of the confusion and hurt left behind when a loved one is wrenched away, leaving only a tremendous void. ‘Separation’, which uses the same materials decorated to look like stone, represents John and his four siblings and the “emptiness” experienced after bereavement. Very sadly, John’s dad died soon after the loss of his mother. The third piece in the set reflects learning how to live without the people we love while a planned fourth item will represent moving forward. “I have learnt to accept the ideas I have and develop them. The other thing I do now is to carry a notebook with me all the time. I even have one by my bed in case I get inspiration during the night and I do use it. I write, draw and scribble constantly, it is like an extension to my memory. Once you get that first idea others come thick and fast and you can develop themes, so I guess the secret is to listen to, and be guided by, your own emotions.”

‘Motherlode’, comprising sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and an oak (Quercus robur) base is the first in a series of sculptural pieces

This is followed by ‘Separation’

'Reconstructed bowl with string’

John still finds it very hard to deal with the fact his dad is no longer there to listen and hear him talking about his work, but he draws comfort that Edward was on hand in August 2009 to see him accepted onto the Register of Professional Turners, supported by The Worshipful Company of Turners of London. “It was like reaching a pinnacle in my career,” recalls John, “my skills had finally been recognised and it made me proud. Dad was pretty chuffed too.” It was around this time that John also attracted royal attention in the shape of the Duchess of Cornwall, who was attending an event in Trowbridge and ‘made a beeline for his stall’. Not that it was his first brush with royalty, having been presented to Princess Anne when he was a young furniture designer/maker. But there is one achievement of which he is particularly proud: designing and making the font for his nearby church, St John the Evangelist. Approached by the vicar to put forward a design for the project, John faced the unusual prospect of having the plans for his work inspected before it was made as the church wardens pored over every aspect of his drawings. Luckily, he coped and with a few minor tweaks, the font now graces the elegant 19th-century church.
Looking forward, John, who is chairman of the Kennet and Avon Woodturners, is keen to pass on his skills. “I qualified as an adult educator and I tutor aspiring turners. This also helps me when I demonstrate at woodturning clubs or other events and it comes into good use when I take part in the youth training initiative.” For himself, however, he admits to being “not sure where I am heading at the moment”. But there’s no sign of him putting his feet up just yet.

Walnut (Juglans nigra) was used for the crosses, which were made as parallel segments, for the 650mm-diameter baptismal bowl

John used European oak in St John’s baptismal font

“I book my holidays around, or to coincide with, turning dates and have loads of designs that I want to make. The way things are going I’ll run out of years before running out of ideas,” he laughs. “But as long as I can get to the workshop, I’ll continue to work and demonstrate. I’d also like to explore other avenues of turning, demonstrate in different places and continue meeting some of the warmest and most generous people around.”

“Way of life”
Professionally, he hopes to get some of his artistic work into a few more galleries, adding “there’s still time for that”. He’s certainly not wrong there. Aged only 59, he still has decades to explore his passion for turning and to continue sharing ideas and good times within the turning community. “Most of the turners I have met have been generous by nature; generous with their time and their knowledge. Normally they are a jolly bunch [hopefully this includes our ‘trendsetting’ turner at the top of the story] and I like being around happy people because it makes me happy, too.

Bowler hat removed for safety, John gets busy in his workshop

“When I turn I don’t have a care in the world, I concentrate on what I am doing and lose all track of time. I think it’s wonderful and I can’t wait to go to work in the mornings. And one of the best things is the instant gratification because you can see what you have achieved at the end of the day. For me, turning has become more than just a job; it is a way of life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

What makes John’s day…
• Applying a tool to the wood and hearing the whistle which tells me I am cutting correctly with a nice sharp tool
• Going to the timber yard and selecting the boards that I want
• The smell of freshly cut pine in the workshop
• Meeting and speaking to turners whose work I admire
• I am passionate about youth training so I really like the youth training days that I attend as an instructor

... what gets his goat…
• Poorly turned and finished work
• Sweeping up shavings
• Having to turn down work whatever the reason might be
• The wife nagging me about the trail of shavings that I leave in my wake throughout the house
• Customers who try to knock me down in price

... AND HIS Top tips
• Learn how to sharpen your tools correctly and keep them sharp
• The only way to become a good turner is with experience; you only get experience by putting time in on the lathe
• Think before each cut. It is difficult to put the wood back on


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