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An Interview with Sally Burnett

In conjunction with our showcase exhibition ’20 Makers, 20 Objects’ which celebrates the 20th anniversary of Design-Nation, we are pleased to present a series of conversations with the selected exhibitors. Here we talk to Sally Burnett who creates statement decorative vessels in turned wood.

Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your exhibition piece ‘Corvus Nero Lustrous Black’ and how it came into being?

Sally Burnett answered: The first Corvus piece was created in 2018 and was the result of turning some sycamore from the crotch of a tree which as a result had a feathered pattern in the grain which swirled around the piece. It was most noticeable on the inside and I wanted to develop a surface pattern which reflected this movement on the outside as well. In doing so the Corvus Nero design was born, and it has developed incrementally with each piece that I have made since.

DN: How has your own background and training informed the development of the piece?

SB: I was trained in 3D design, originally working in glass and then ceramics.  Working in wood has actually been quite a recent development. All of these materials have given me a love of both form and texture – exploring a surface, creating movement around a piece and playing with dark and light, shadow, matt and gloss. Wood is such a versatile material in that it allows me to play with the surface in so many ways. I love experimenting and the Corvus piece is just one step on that journey.

DN: How is the object made and where? Are there many stages?

SB: I work in a studio next to my home in Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, which has meant that I have been able to continue working throughout the current pandemic. I source timber in the winter when the sap in the tree is no longer rising, so there is less tension within the tree, which reduces the possibility of cracking.

Cut logs, my source material, are mounted onto a lathe and are turned ‘green’ a term used to describe recently felled wood, which still contains moisture. Turning can be rather a wet process as moisture is often forced out of the timber as the lathe rotates. The turned vessels I create are allowed to dry and then the decorating process can begin.

The wood is bleached to create the delicate bone like surface and I carve the design itself into that surface using pyrography and carving tools. The textured areas are then painted with black acrylic colour, both to create a contrast with the bleached background and also to provide a sealed surface for any gilding. For the piece in ‘20 Makers, 20 Objects’ I used gold dyed, marbled silver leaf which gives a rich lustrous surface.

DN: What is the quality of the wood you use: how do you select the pieces for turning and what draws you to different woods?

SB: I try to use locally sourced English native hardwoods from storm damaged trees or trees felled for land clearance. Sycamore is my particular favourite for Corvus pieces as the grain responds well to turning, carving and colour.

I need a tree that is at least 500cm in diameter, relatively straight with not too many knots or inclusions. They are often more than a hundred years old and it is both a pleasure and a responsibility to give the tree a new life.

DN: What’s the trickiest thing about the development and making process, and what is the most satisfying?

SB: The drying process can take 4-6 months and does not always end well with some pieces lost due to an unfortunate crack. Planning my work schedule is important so as to be certain that I have sufficient pieces dry or drying to meet the needs of my clients. Factor in that timber should be selected and turned between October and March and my supply of turned work must be planned 12-18 months ahead.

My favourite part of the process is probably the turning itself. Every tree works differently, it may be spalted* or rippled, the tree may have grown quickly or slowly or even on a slope – all of this impacts on the structure of the grain, which in turn affects the way that the wood turns and even how it dries. Learning to ‘read’ the tree is fun and continues to be a challenge.

DN: Tell us about your workspace.

S.B: I work in a studio next to my home in Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, which has meant that I have been able to continue working throughout the current pandemic. It is quite compact but contains everything that I need for my work including a hoist for the logs – a necessity as they can weigh over 50kgs before they are turned and only 3-4kg when finished.

DN: Do you have a favourite tool or process, and is it used in the making of this object?

S.B: All my turned pieces are made with hand tools and my favourite is a bowl gouge. It is used to shape the form, both inside and out. It can remove large amounts of wood in a single cut or make fine shavings with a delicate finishing cut. Keep it sharp and it is a truly versatile tool.

DN: What’s the best thing that’s happened in relation to this object?

SB: I work alone in my workshop which can be quite isolating. The ‘20 Makers, 20 Objects’ showcase has made me feel more ‘connected’ and seeing my work curated with that of so many incredibly talented makers has been a real pleasure.

DN: Do you imagine creating a follow-up to this, or in fact has that already happened?

SB: Although I regularly make pieces from the Corvus Nero Lustrous Black range, each one is unique.  They are marketed in three standard sizes but the curves of the piece and the motifs themselves are unique. With each piece I learn, techniques change and improve, designs develop and change. I think that making is a continuous learning process and vital to how we develop as craftsmen. It is a process with a beginning but hopefully without an end.

DN: What ambitions do you have for the future of this object and work like this?

SB: This object already has a new home. Supplied with pictures from the original tree to the finished piece, it is important to me that the client learns and understands the making process, an appreciation of craftsmanship.

Interview by Laura Jacometti

* Spalted wood has lines and marks in it which are cause by fungal infections of the tree, and which can be highly decorative, so they are prized by woodworkers such as Sally.

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Clare Edwards


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