Meet the Makers: Zoe Wilson
Our deep dive into the world of craft continues this month with stone artist, QEST scholar and John Smedley ambassador, Zoe Wilson
words by Will HALBERT
How would you describe your craft?
I am a stone carver and sculptor.
What is your favourite part about what you do?
The process of creating a piece starts with generating an idea, turning the idea into a design, and then carving the design into stone. I very much enjoy that the process is made up of different elements, but the final stage of carving into stone – just using a mallet and chisel – is still my favourite
How did you begin your career?
I don’t think there was a specific beginning moment to my career. I didn’t set out to be a stone carver or even know what one was. Looking back, it evolved in a very serendipitous way. I started working with stone 11 years ago, but my passion for art and craft has always been present.
How long have you been at your craft?
My first job in the stone industry was 11 years ago, when I worked for a company which specialised in granite work surfaces. My job was in the workshop, cutting and polishing large pieces of granite along with limestone flooring tiles. It was at this point I discovered I really liked the workshop environment (not to mention driving a forklift truck) and had my first taste of skilled craftsmanship.
What other craftsmen stand out to you most and why?
Amongst the teachers I have had throughout my career, there are two in particular who really stand out to me as inspirational craftsmen. The first is John Neilson, who is a master letter-cutter. John lives in an idyllic little cottage on the side of a Welsh mountain, only accessible through the farm at the bottom of the valley. I say this because meeting John was definitely a serendipitous moment. John was not just ‘a chap in the next valley who carves headstone, I think’ which was how he was first described to me, but in fact a master of his craft. He opened my eyes to how beautiful a well-drawn line could be.
It was through my apprenticeship with John that I learnt about the historic stone carving course at City and Guilds of London Art School, where I met my second inspirational craftsman, Nina Bilbey. Nina is such a talented carver, and thankfully an excellent teacher too. Learning from her was definitely inspiring, not only due to her wealth of knowledge and talent, but also due to the fact that, despite working with stone for 6 years, she was the first female carver I had met.
Did anything in particular inspire you to start your craft?
No, not specifically, I have just always said yes to opportunities which arise, and with an inquisitive mind, I’ve had to find out more about the elements which really interest me.
What is the hardest part about what you do?
Now I have learnt and developed the practical skills, I find being self-employed can be difficult. I miss not having colleagues. Working by myself for the majority of the time can be lonely and requires good self motivation. However, I love being in charge of my own time and also knowing that my achievements rest solely on my shoulders
What makes your craftsmanship most rewarding?
Producing a piece that I’m really proud of technically and aesthetically, and someone else also enjoying it so much that they buy it.
Where did you learn the skills required for your role?
I feel with all craft, you are constantly learning or honing your skills, making every craftsman unique. Over many years, I have accumulated a broad range of skills, all of which make up a unique dexterity for my craft. From a foundation course in art, a degree in fine art painting, work-based learning with the granite company, a work apprenticeship in stone masonry, followed by another in letter carving, running my own business as a mason and finally a diploma in historic stone carving.
What has been the most important learning curve for you?
The three year diploma at City and Guilds of London Art school was the most intensive skills development by far. But maybe the most important learning curve came ten years earlier during my degree in fine art, when I learnt how to be self-motivated.
Have you had any major pitfalls to overcome to maintain your craft?Financially embarking on the three-year diploma involving moving to London was the biggest risk. Although I had been saving hard, I still made the move and started the course without the money to complete it. I knew the course was pivotal to my career, and the only course of its kind, so I decided to take a leap of faith. This certainly meant that I valued every single day and really squeezed every drop of knowledge out of the tutors. I also spent the little free time I had applying for any bits of funding available. Thankfully, I was successful with receiving a number of grants, the most significant being in my second year when I became a QEST scholar, and received funding to see me through to the end of the course.
Has your craft evolved into other, newer skills over time?
Yes, I started out just knowing how to cut and polish granite. Now? Now I can carve gargoyles, model heads and carve pottery.
How would you describe a day in your craft?
Everyday varies, which is something I particularly value. Sometimes I am at the computer coming up with ideas, developing designs, updating social media or my website etc.
Other days, I may be in the workshop carving an existing piece, or sanding down a finished piece and adding the fixings. Or I might be out; visiting a quarry to buy stone, visiting a client for a commission or a gallery for inspiration. If I’m carving, I really like a whole day uninterrupted to get really stuck into it. Whereas the other elements I tend to mix up so I have a morning out and an afternoon in.
What are the biggest challenges you face in what you do?
I think earning a reasonable wage so I can carry on doing what I love is probably the biggest challenge. I’ve spent a long time training to get to where I am today, but unfortunately, it’s still hard to make your way as a craftsman.
How have you stayed passionate and inspired by your craft?
I find adding to my skills helps to keep me inspired and excited by what I do. I think the passion for creating is a very deeply-rooted part of me and carving is my outlet for that.
Do you have any plans to expand on what it is that you do?
Definitely. For the moment I just need to concentrate on getting my work known and building a reputation. In the longer term I would love to be able to employ someone, or even a couple of people. Taking on an apprentice would also be something I would like very much to do. I would love to share my skills and knowledge with someone starting out, the way so many people kindly did with me.
What are the main projects you are working on now?
I have a modelling project of a baby’s portrait I’m currently working on. At the moment, I’m in the initial stages of the clay design, and will cast it in plaster once finished. I also have a sketchbook bursting with ideas for the next surface pattern piece, so I’m playing around with designs on the computer before ordering a suitable size piece of stone. I think the next one will be in Portland limestone, which is my favourite British stone, and not one I’ve been able to use for a while.
How would your customers describe your craft?
Hopefully a crossover between art and craft which is bespoke and beautiful.
Are there any accomplishments that you are particularly proud of? There are a number of accomplishments that I’m really proud of, but two stick out in particular. Whilst at college, one of the competitions I won was to design a new gargoyles for St George’s Chapel at Windsor castle. I then produced a scale model of my design and went on to carve it ready for installation. Then, In 2017, I carved a piece for His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei. I was even more delighted to be able to present the piece to him and talk about the carving.
How would you describe your approach to your craft in 3 words? Innovative, contemporary, distinctive.
How has working with QEST helped you on your path?
QEST have been a huge support to me. Initially, it was financially; their funding allowed me to finish training at the Art School. Since then, so many opportunities have arisen through being one of their scholars. I try and say yes to as many opportunities as possible, such as speaking on their behalf at the Royal Warrant Holders AGM in St. James’s Palace and demonstrating (and then donating) a piece at their annual charity event at the V&A Museum. The staff are always really helpful and keen to promote my business wherever possible, which is just a really lovely support to have.
How would you describe John Smedley?
A traditional British manufacturing company specialising in high quality, fine knitwear. Evolving to stay contemporary whilst maintaining a high level of craftsmanship and staying true to their brand and reputation.
Do you have a favourite John Smedley piece, if so what?
It’s really hard to choose just one piece! With a slight allergy to wool, it’s the cotton range that always captures my interest, elegant yet simple. Pieces like the Paddington Jumper, and the Ana and Bryony tops are all wonderful. But I guess if I had to choose one, it would be the Burdine Dress in either navy or the botanical blush.
What are you most excited about for the future?
I’m really excited about getting my current collection of work into an exhibition and seeing how it’s received. I’ve been developing it for the last two years, so I’m a little nervous about seeing whether it sparks interest. However, I love the pieces and feel I’ve really developed my own unique style.