Q. What qualifications route did you take to realise your career?
I had an amazing teacher at school who thought I should do a foundation course in art. I had no idea that this was even an option. I loved the course and when I found the sculpture department, I didn’t leave. From there I applied and was accepted for a degree in sculpture at Wimbledon and then a post-graduate degree in sculpture at St Martin’s. I was elected to the Royal British Society of Sculptors in 2000.
Q. Please explain in detail what students will learn during your Wood carving classes.
Carving is a very back to front way of thinking – you take away what you don’t need to ‘find’ the sculpture inside. I talk to everyone about what they will make and show them lots of images, they spend some time exploring ideas in clay, which gives me a chance to make sure that this is a suitable design for a wood carving. I find out the sort of thing they like and want to make so that I can give them new ideas within their area of interest. It is really important for students to like what they make, they actually have to put in the hours to create it and then they have to live with it on their mantelpiece. If they are not happy with what they make, they won’t be motivated to finish it. Once they have a design, it gets technical: selecting wood, using tools safely and carving - working out what bits to remove and why, sharpening and going through the wood carving process to an end result. It’s not as tough as it sounds, honestly, but when it does get tricky and students struggle with the mental gymnastics, I am there to help them through. Students are really good at helping each other too.
Q. What’s the first thing you teach your students on a wood carving course?
That they can ask questions, the same question over and over again if necessary.
Q. What qualities do you need to succeed in your industry?
As an artist - dogged determination to keep making even when the studio is freezing and another rejection has come through. As a wood carving tutor, we need the patience to help students through to a finished result that they can be proud of and good humour just because it always helps.
Q. What are the benefits of studying this wood carving?
There are so many! Visual art explores the world around us and 3D is at the heart of this. I believe that the whole curriculum can be taught through visual arts. Apart from that, my students report increased self confidence in other areas of their life; students with dyslexia have gained the confidence to seek help with literacy. Others say they have reduced stress because hitting a lump of wood for three hours makes people feel better after a rotten day at work. I could go on but I really cannot overestimate the benefits.
Q. Please explain why you love wood carving.
What’s not to enjoy? Finally finishing off something that was a vague feeling perhaps years ago and seeing a complete sculpture that does what you planned – brilliant! Getting it accepted in a gallery is an amazing feeling. Even though it can also often be frustrating, aggravating, puzzling, perplexing, vexing , lonely and freezing cold, but even on a bad day I still want to be in the studio rather than anywhere else. The students are always the best thing about teaching. They are great fun and hugely creative so they keep me on my toes, which I really enjoy.
Q. What’s the best way to go about getting a job in your industry?
Dogged determination! Here at City lit we have to be artists first and foremost, and know our subject. Our students can trust us to know what we are talking about. To get a job at City Lit I had to provide a CV of exhibitions and show a commitment to making sculpture and wood carving. As an artist I just keep making work and making applications for shows and residencies and I am starting to get invited to shows and symposiums, which feels great.
Q. Can you describe a typical day in your working life?
There is nothing typical!! I always have Betsy my dog with me who sleeps through all the noise of the chainsaw or the hammering. In the studio I always have several projects on the go so that I can be working on one piece while I wait for glue to dry on another, for example. I spend some time each week approaching galleries and responding to call outs for artists. Time in the studio is seasonal and fits around teaching commitments though I am there several days every week. I have work at home that needs sanding so I can get on with that if there isn’t time to get into the studio. My social life …….?
Q. What advice do you have for people interested in studying wood carving?
Give it a go and it just might be the start of a whole new way of life
Q. How long have you been in the industry?
Ahem – I am over 21!
Q. Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on.
The best one was being hugged by Archbishop Desmond Tutu - the best payment for a job ever! I was commissioned to carve a Peace Pole for a garden created to commemorate his life in Lewisham. I have just placed a sculpture in the Andres Institute in New Hampshire. Some of my work has been made in community settings, so there is a whale in Windrush school in Thamesmead, a dinosaur pavement and mural for a Children’s Centre also in Thamesmead and a giraffe seat for a school in Sussex.
Q. What do you think is the most important skill required to do your job?
Loving sculpture and open minded risk taking with a piece of work
Alexandra Harley runs several courses in the sculpture department at City Lit. She started teaching the wood carving class but this has expanded to include teaching other courses such as sculpture, stone carving, life modelling and bronze casting. She also runs short courses in the summer programme, which is where she is able to try out some experimental courses – anyone for origami in metal? After leaving college she got herself a studio and has been making sculpture ever since. She has had work exhibited regularly around the country since leaving college. She has shown work alongside Andy Goldsworthy in Norfolk and was selected for the Royal British Society of Sculptors Open as well as having had some work in the ‘Naked’ exhibition as part of the 18@108 series. She reassures us that it was not necessary for her to remove any clothes and that the ‘naked’ referred to the sculpture!