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There was this girl who wanted an adventure...

Updated: Jun 7

Barely out of school. With no real destination or plan in mind. Carol Russell left her cherished home and devastated parents behind in Launceston Tasmania to travel north to the mainland via sailboat. All was well at sea until the Universe intervened. A dispute with the skipper saw Carol dropped off unceremoniously at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine coast around 1980. From there she made her way south to a modernising Brisbane, the big country town that was to be her home for the next forty years.

At the time Carol had no affinity with woodworking. She was considering becoming a journalist or maybe a potter. This all changed thanks to a chance encounter at a woodworking exhibition she attended. There she met a craftsperson who was building Shaker furniture. Admiring the work, the maker explained that he could teach Carol how to build such things. The die was cast. Learning from anyone and everyone. Building and restoring furniture. Working in shared spaces or on her own, Carol became a craftsperson. This continued for many years until she tired of the routine of tight schedules and the endless management of commissions. Carol wanted a change in direction. Her friend Geoff Lowe offered an opportunity to set up a woodwork teaching school at his growing business Carbatec. Carol took the job and put her own craft work on hold.

At work, at peace

I first met Carol in the mid 2000’s. Not exactly sure when or how. Yet our paths crossed properly when her influence landed me a much-needed job at Carbatec as well. There we found ourselves sharing a desk in the marketing department, only for a week or two though, something had been building within Carol and it was time for her next leap of faith. Here is the bottom line. Being creative and living as an independent craftsperson is a very time consuming and difficult pursuit mentally, physically and particularly financially. Like Carol, many craftspeople hold down a job and try to do a little on the side. Yet it is difficult to make real progress in this situation. Living like this is also very frustrating as neither paid work nor your craft receive the full attention each require. You can tick along feeling that you are only achieving average results in both pursuits. It's often easier to just forget your creative dreams and carry on with life as is.

Yet creativity is a strange creature being both timid and ferocious. As discussed, mostly it lays dormant deep down in the den of the sub conscious hibernating. Ensuring the real-life activities of paying bills and raising children is done efficiently and effectively. Yet there are times when the creature cannot be contained. And once roused not even endless responsibilities or worried partners murmurings can maintain the creative beings’ shackles. Carol's creativity had been shackled for too long, it was time for the creature to emerge. On leaving Carbatec, craft returned to Carol like good rain to parched country. Starting as a drizzle, then building till steady. Rain that filled her tanks and washed away the fear of failure that lays at the heart of any craftsperson in creative hibernation.

Carol started with carving wooden spoons. Makes sense, relatively simple object, and you can use all the little bits and pieces of wood as Carol would say. And we are not necessarily talking about exotic offcuts. This is stuff left by the road. Twigs. Branches. And chucks of wood that no one would pay attention too except those with a cold house and an open fireplace. Using the craft skills she had developed in the early days of Brisbane, and by applying her extraordinary knowledge of furniture restoration and finishing. Carol took spoon carving in new directions with organic forms and earthly tones. Spoons were hip in the 2000’s and Carol led the way. She liberated craft from the confines of old men’s dusty workshops, gathering with new carvers in cafes, gardens and her inner-city cottage of a workshop. Carol is not the craftsperson who sits on the mountain, dictating the terms of what craft is. Carol is with the people, showing them the way.

A palm sized wombat

Carol's work progressed on from spoons to small animal forms, people and boats. And though the objects she carves have remained simple, the ideas behind them have become far more complex. I must admit I have struggled to understand Carol's more recent work. Spoons and bowls no worries, I totally get the whole utilitarian experience and the blending of form and function. But what does a palm sized wombat or an abstract teacup sized dog say about the world? Are they beautiful? Yes, I suppose they are. Are they just convenient and fun to make? I don’t think that is the point. Is it about the captured moment? Or the play of light on the objects surface? Getting warmer. Is this work about fragility? Hmmmm. I hold this odd little carved dog in one hand. I could easily crush it. I could easily set it down and forget it. Yet I don’t. I choose just to hold it, feel it's shape in my hand. Make a place for it in my heart and keep it safe.

Memory. Carol tells a story of a beautiful natural forest glade near her childhood home. It was a special place for Carol where she could go and contemplate one with nature. Such spaces are labelled third places. I have one, you probably have one as well. These are a private space where there are no expectations. And even if they are deserted, you never feel alone. Carol came home one afternoon from school and her third place had been bulldozed. Razed. Removed. I imagine her sitting there weeping for what was lost. She was nine years old.

The devastation of clear felling will break any heart

What happened to Carol's glade is to be expected. Happens every day. This is the thing about beauty. It attracts interest from all quarters and motivates the primal senses of the sub conscious both good and evil with equal gusto. Watch the admirers gather before that piece of art or view of the ocean. Some wish to just experience the beauty, maybe share with others. Some covet. They want to possess it. Manipulate it and profit from it. There is no truer case of this than Carol's forest glade. It was beautiful. People want to live there. People need houses. Zoom out a few hundred kilometres and you have Tasmania. It’s beautiful. People want to live there. And people need houses.

If you know Carol, then you probably know how she feels about Tasmania. Many only get the official version as described in her bio and I quote, “there seemed to be a desperation in the craftspeople to capture Tasmania’s beauty in their work before it was snatched away”. That line written about the 1970’s, around the time her glade was destroyed. A few years ago Carol and her husband Nick returned to live in her home town of Launceston. I asked how she felt about Tasmania today, had its natural beauty been snatched away as feared? No, she said. It's more a situation of fading beauty. Piece by piece Tasmania’s beauty is being slowly dismantled as the sensible conflict unfolds between jobs and resources, between tourists and development. “People need houses I suppose” she agrees uncomfortably. Carol is always so agreeable even when distressed.

This little one swoons for their master

One thing is for sure. What happened that day to Carol’s glade. The cold trauma of that experience. Forged within her a certain need. A need to preserve and protect. She has carried this forward through her life and now expresses it through her work. As she carves wood, she crafts a story. As she restores an object, she reminds us of the value of things past. As she works with new carvers they learn not just the power of a sharp edge, they absorb an understanding of things that some believe are most important in this world. I look at her work and I think I understand. Yet I only understand because I am starting to know the maker. Fragility. Fight for that which cannot fight for itself. Keep it safe. Not all things need to be about profit or progress.

This weekend Carol and Nick are moving north to live in Melbourne nearer their son Hugo. Carol has touched base with Tasmania, yet she is not ready to settle down there just yet. Back on the mainland, she will waste no time in setting to work. Carving her fragile palm sized creatures and sharing her stories. Subtly explaining the responsibility we all share for the care of beauty. Interestingly, Carol will travel back to mainland once again via sea. I wonder if the Universe will intervene again.

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