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Why Rocking Horses Olivia?

When was the last time you rode a rocking horse? Probably been a while. Most of us would have ridden one at some point in our lives, though I suspect riding across the plain dressed as the Lone Ranger is being fast replaced with virtual googles and an iCloud gaming account. Traditionally, a wooden rocking horse is a classic toy symbolising childhood. A time of life filled with imagination and freedom where heroes were real and someone else paid the rent. Yet time passes and we all grow up forgetting the adventures played out on the veranda riding Wilbur. You may still see a rocking horse or at least a bastardised mechanical version trapped in a perpetual servitude at the mall for two dollars a go, otherwise they are a rare sight indeed. So, when you meet an artist such as Olivia O’Connor, who makes and restores rocking horses you must ask, how the hell does someone get into this kind of work? Does one simply wake up one morning and decide hey, I am going to make rocking horses and live out in the country! I suppose most of us creatives have such fantasies now and then, yet the path Olivia has chosen is truly unique. From humble beginnings on the family farm, through education and work stints in Melbourne, London and Sydney, Olivia has realised this dream craft lifestyle.

Hands and mind together, Olivia at her bench

Cut to it. Olivia O’Connor is an artist and craftsperson who specialises in woodcarving, print making, handmade rocking horses and restoration working and teaching from her studio in South Gippsland Victoria. I first came across Olivia when she popped up online presenting live streamed carving videos for one of the woodworking retailers. No doubt this bright faced person bangs and all brought a fresh face to wood carving along with a relaxed and friendly presentation style. The wheels turned and I was lucky enough to meet Olivia at WOOD DUST 23 where she demonstrated wood block carving and print making at the Timber & Tool Marketplace. I have always been drawn to sculptured zoomorphic objects. Judy McKie’s 1983 ‘Leopard Couch’ is an all-time favourite piece. I went through an animalistic phase myself making ‘Moo Furniture’ with Australian artist Angus McDonald throughout the 2000’s. Intrigued I got online with Olivia for chat to learn more.

Olivia grew up on a farm on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. She was a creative kid, so coastal country was the perfect environment to nurture her love for natural materials such as wood and leather, and to absorb the beauty of country life. Olivia’s parents supported her interest in craft by providing access to real tools and space to work. Her legendary messiness was overlooked as her passion developed through play with materials. Olivia held her first exhibition when she was about eight, charging her mum and dad ten cents to enter the show. Reports just in suggest she is making a little more coin these days. I asked whether there was a lightning bolt moment when she realised the desire to be craftsperson. But no, Olivia has no such memory, rather a love of making had grown within her during childhood, and she chose to act upon this once finishing school.

This sweet creature is undergoing restoration thanks to Olivia's loving touch

First stop, studying Furniture Design and Construction at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). This avenue seems all the rage these days, yet Olivia completed the first year but wasn’t satisfied with the experience quoting a lack of leadership and viable future employment options. Though the experience wasn’t a complete waste of time, she did manage to meet future husband Paul who was also studying furniture design. Seeking an alternative pathway Olivia attended a design conference in Melbourne where she met various designers and prop makers. As a result, she changed tact and applied to the prop making course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Olivia’s interest in NIDA wasn’t related to dramatic arts more so the diversity of the program. Olivia also viewed prop making as a trade, a course of study that would more likely lead to better employment opportunities long term.

Word on the street is that the competition to enter NIDA is tight. The application process includes making a one-to-one scale musical instrument. The piece does not need to function just look real - this is the way of the prop maker I suppose. Attracted to the multiple components and materials they consist of, and to set herself apart from the herd, Olivia made a piano accordion. I mean, who else would make such a thing? Turns out plenty of people had the same idea, yet Olivia made it through and was accepted into the program. Over the next three years Olivia worked with wood, leather, foam-sculpture, model and mould making and puppet making graduating in 2011. Interestingly, Olivia made her first rocking horse in her final year.

Isabella, a Rocking Horse custom made by Olivia O'Connor

After graduation Olivia did what many of us do and headed to the big smoke. During the next twelve months Olivia worked as a prop maker and scenic artist at the Sydney Opera House, Opera Australia and FOX Films. This variety of roles allowed Olivia to further develop her practical making and painting skills. From Sydney Olivia headed to London where she worked for the Royal National Theatre as saddle maker on the War Horse production for three months. I note an underlying theme emerging in her work. Yet the reality of life as a prop maker began to bite. The English and their winter are cold and miserable. The pay is low and the commute times high. Working contract to contract always chasing the next gig is stressful and disheartening. Olivia’s mind turned home with the realisation that she would rather just do all of this for herself. The great accumulation of experiences was fantastic, but “I don’t like the city, it is time to head home.”

Olivia has loved horses and dogs her whole life

Throughout all this time Olivia had been pondering a rocking horse business. She had always loved rocking horses. Everyone has a story of a rocking horse. Her experience with the waste of the props industry created the desire to make something that lasted a hundred years. And she wanted to pursue diverse work that incorporated leather, wood and paint. Rocking horse making has all these characteristics. Back on the farm, Mum and Dad had moved to South Gippsland to raise beef cattle. They provided Olivia with access to a shed with electricity, and Olivia attended a local college to study small business management. The advice she received was that rocking horses were too niche, you need to go broad to succeed! Olivia soon found herself making furniture, bread boards, boxes even carving spoons with the occasional rocking horse thrown in. This approach confused the audience. “Are you the rocking horse girl or the cutting board girl?”, eyes roll. This enterprise failed so she trusted her instincts and Hi Ho Silver Olivia’s rocking horse business was foaled. And as it is with horses, this business found it's legs straight away and has galloped on for over ten years. Olivia estimates that there is a team of about one hundred rocking horses out there on the range. Yet there is more to all this than just business and finding a niche. When Olivia makes a rocking horse, she is working with people who want to create an heirloom. Create something special to hand on. This experience of helping people create their vision is thrilling and a great privilege for Olivia. It brings value to the customer, the maker and whoever is fortunate enough to own the piece down the road. This is the essential experience for a craftsperson.

As I write this article, I know Olivia is busy running a rocking horse course from her studio. Due to an injury, Olivia has broadened her practice by developing less physically demanding pursuits such as teaching, carving and print making. Rocking horses remain her first love and she continues to make a one or two pieces a year. Yet the key question remains, why rocking horses? Well, in addition to all the insights above, it turns out Olivia’s father was a racehorse trainer. She grew up around horses and developed a deep love for them. This reminds us of how much childhood experiences impact our adult life. Set against the backdrop of family, country and horses, through play with material Olivia found craft, she then went on to find herself. Oh, one last question Olivia, do you have a grand secret plan? Yes, win the lottery and retire to the beach. Now that’s a dream lifestyle.

Group workshop in Olivia's studio, four rocking horses in five days! Ruby the Red Healer helped out of course..

Olivia O'Connor is soon teaching Relief Carving and Wood Block Print Making at the Wood Play Studio in Coburg. Check out the Wood Dust website to learn more and reserve your bench space.

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What incredible work!!

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