We’re excited to introduce you to the amazing artist and stone carver, Zoe Wilson. Zoe is a self-taught artist based in the UK who creates stunning sculptures and carvings that capture the essence of nature and wildlife. Her work is both elegant and intricate, and each piece is a testament to her passion for the craft. We sat down with Zoe, to learn more about her creative process, inspiration and her journey as an artist.
You've been selected as a Pioneer for Damsons - What's your definition of the word Pioneer?
I think of a pioneer as someone who is looking forward, maybe searching for something new or developing new skills or techniques. It’s a word I feel proud to be associated with.
How did you get into carving? How has your work evolved? Tell us your story…
I’ve always loved being creative. Initially, I studied fine art painting at university. I found the course was very conceptual, focusing heavily on the ideas behind the art rather than the work itself. I really battled against this, but I think looking back it's probably how I discovered my passion for making.
After leaving university I tried lots of different jobs, one of which was working at a granite manufacturing company in the workshop. I spent my time cutting and polishing granite, driving the forklift truck, and using massive flatbed saws. I found a complete love of the workshop environment and producing functional items.
From here it has been a serendipitous journey. I didn’t ever really seek out working with stone, I guess maybe it found me! I served a three-year informal apprenticeship in architectural stone masonry, followed by a further two-year apprenticeship in letter carving whilst also working as a self-employed stone mason. I then learned of the City and Guilds of London Art School and enrolled on the three-year Diploma in Historic Stone Carving.
The diploma was a real turning point for me. It was my absolute favourite three years of studying, I felt like all my skills were coming together and I realised without really planning I had developed a great set of skills for ornamental carving.
Since graduating in 2016 I have been working as a self-employed stone carver and have developed my own style of carving complex geometric patterns into British stone. I now see myself as a carver and sculptor and have just about come a full circle back around to being an artist!
Who are your heroes / who inspires you?
I think most of my heroes have been people who have taught me along the way. Two stand out in particular; John Neilson who kindly and patiently taught me letter carving, it was through John's methodical teaching that I gained confidence and saw the beauty in letter forms for the first time; Nina Bilbey was my senior tutor on my diploma, Nina was the first female stone carver I had met and taught me so much about how to translate my ideas into stone. She manipulates the material in such an amazing way, I have a huge respect for her.
I now, find huge inspiration in other makers’ work, not limited to stone carvers. I love how craftsmen develop a deep understanding of their material and tools, working within their limitations but also pushing to find out what can be achieved. I think it’s an exciting time for craftsmen in the UK, which I’m really excited to be a part of. Makers like ceramicists, Alice Walton and Francis Priest, leather worker Frances Pinnock, metal worker Daniel Freyne, glass blower Kath Husky and of course the amazing wood turner Eleanor Lakelin are all inspiring people.
In your work, what values do you cherish the most?
After graduating with my diploma, my husband and I lived in Southeast Asia for two years. Whilst it was a wonderful adventure, I was also homesick, not just for the people but for the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the UK. This made me view British stone in a completely different way. I now feel a hugely strong connection with the local stones I use.
This has also led me to respect the material in a different way. I really value that my craft is slow. I work on one piece of stone for a few weeks, this not only allows me to get to know its characteristics but also to try and do justice to the slow formation of the material in the first place.
I am very aware of the environmental impact of working with stone. Working locally helps to reduce the milage of my material and the slow nature of the process also means I don’t need that much material!
I also feel that it’s a huge privilege to be continuing this traditional craft. I use the same basic tools which have been used for 100’s of years, which gives me a great sense of heritage and connection with the past. The craft of carving is also very special to me as it’s the connection between your brain, the tools, your hands, and the material. I’m not sure I could explain all the processes which are going on whilst I carve, to me it almost feels like my hands have learnt different skills from my brain and they independently create what my head imagines.
How do you come up with your designs and what do you do when you hit a creative block?
I have always found patterns inspiring, I’m sure it was my time living abroad and being surrounded by Islamic patterns and the sacred geometry in the plants of the rainforest which inspired my love of geometry.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, my inspiration would come through day to day to experiences. Maybe it was the shape of a railing or a tile in a pub toilet, I would constantly be looking. At that point, I was taking patterns which were already in existence and redeveloping them in some way.
However, when lockdown hit, and we spent some much time at home I was aware of the lack of inspiration!
Realising I was going to have to find inspiration from elsewhere I started to learn more about geometry. I took a weekly lesson which the School of Traditional Arts was running online. It was fun learning a new skill and I became really fascinated with geometric patterns. There is such order and a sense of reliability about geometry I suspect my new interest was also fuelled by the uncertainty of the time as well.
Now, when I am creating a new piece of work, I almost always start by sitting down with a piece of paper, and a pair of compasses, and just have a play! It’s a lovely way to start, sometimes designs come quickly and other times it might take a while. If I do get a bit of a creative block, I like to go back to the studio and just spend some time carving to remove the pressure a little. This is always the time when inspiration will hit!
How do you express your individuality within your style?
I hope, I have developed a recognisable style of working. I would love for someone to see one of my carvings and immediately be able to know the maker. I really enjoy taking the traditional skills and seeing what else is possible to do with them.
For me there is a restfulness in the precision of a pattern, I find things which are accurate and visually pleasing. I carve patterns which I find satisfying and interesting, what is fantastic is that others feel the same way about them too!
What is your favourite piece from the Damsons collection?
Tough question, can I say all of them! When I discovered Damson clothing, I felt such an affinity with both the brand and the style. I love the practical yet stylish nature of the clothes, I’ve found that such a tricky thing to find in the past. I often wore men’s sweatshirts and dungarees, but not anymore!!
I would probably have to say my Lindsey Denim overalls when in the studio carving, but I’m also completely in love with the Tan work pant. I really do feel like I’m a woman who means business with those on…yet they’re so comfy too!
What are your tricks for boosting confidence?
I’ve felt hugely much more confident in my work since doing the diploma in Historic Stone Carving. Whilst I don’t think qualifications are important, I personally always felt like I was winging it a bit because I didn’t have a solid foundation. I think learning about the history of how and why we do something can give you real confidence to be able to talk about your work and explain where it has developed from.
On a personal side, if I’m doing something a little out of my comfort zone like speaking at an event, or a big client meeting I always make sure my hair is looking nice! I hadn’t really realised I do this, but it’s a little thing which really affects my confidence. For me, clothing is important too, as well as that trip to the bathroom to have a quick pep talk with yourself in the mirror just before!
What is your favourite Album, Artist or Spotify Playlist?
I spent most of my time at college listening to Mumford and Sons whilst I carved. In fact, I listened to their albums all the time to help my concentration in a noisy studio, so much so that I think I know every word to every song!
I don’t listen to music when I carve now, I really like the noise and the rhythm of the chisel on the stone. Outside of work though the Lumineers are on a lot in our house!
Any recommendations on the best podcast to listen to?
Well, I’m going to have to say my recent podcast with Katie and Jack from We Are Makers! They featured my work in Edition four of their lovely publication which highlights makers from around the world. On a recent tour of the country, they visited my studio to interview me for a podcast we chatted about everything stone and creative. It was a great fun chat; I’d definitely recommend it!
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