This May and June we are delighted to welcome Annemarie O'Sullivan's exquisite baskets and wicker work to TIINA the STORE with a custom installation and display. Annemarie’s work is the perfect combination of an ancient craft continued and made her own - thoughtful in creation and object. In this interview we hear about her influences, the sustainable process of growing and making, working as a small team of herself, husband Tom and apprentice Matilda, and how she would like us to use and live with her baskets.
Our summer 2021 season commences with Annemarie O’Sullivan, opening Friday 28th May.
Basket making - an ancient craft, 1000’s of years old – how did you venture into this craft, and how have you made it your own?
I fell in love with basketmaking on a short course I took about 16 years ago. It appeared out of nowhere and has remained at the centre of my life ever since.
Basket making made me feel human, like I was remembering something I had always done, rather than learning a new thing. It gave me a sense of belonging.
For me, this work had an immediate familiarity to it and is strongly connected to my feelings about swimming and moving under water. I spent as much of my childhood as I could underwater and loved the idea that I could be the ‘Man from Atlantis’. The movement of swimming and basketmaking are one and the same for me.
When I made my first basket, I had two small children and no time for myself. I developed an extraordinary appetite for baskets, for the handmade and felt absolutely desperate to make. I had no idea where it was taking me.
I’ve followed my gut feelings throughout my making and have tried as much to make what I really love, even when others were suggesting that I do things differently. I’m really lucky that I’ve always had my husband Tom McWalter to talk to about the work. He has always been fully part of the conversation.
Your creative process is fully sustainable – all-encompassing from the growing to the harvesting, designing to the weaving. Looking at you as a maker, this brings such a charm as it is idealistic in all aspects – almost ethereal in comparison to a world today, where items are untraceable and guised as to their origins. How vital is this autonomy to your practice and what you create?
Working sustainably is the beginning, the middle and the end of our work. I trained using different materials and techniques from all over the world, but it was willow that really spoke to me as the vernacular material that I wanted to work with.
Basket makers have always used what was close to hand, whatever they could carve off the land with a knife. Willow is the material which was widely used across Ireland, Britain and the European continent. It is the wood of magic, fairies and healing in my home country Ireland. It grows in abundance in our climate.
Tom and I grow about 20 different types of willow, each with its own properties and each good for a particular task. The real beauty of this material is that each has been handed on through the generations, in the form of cuttings, from one basket maker to the next. I have a strong sense of the lineage of makers who came before me, who cared for the willow and then passed it on to the next person to continue the cycle.
I suppose our life does look pretty charming. We do work very hard and have had times when we feel physically quite broken. Sustaining our bodies has been part of the learning and creative process. Our daily schedule now starts with about an hour of yoga. It isn’t a luxury, but an essential part of keeping our bodies in good enough order to continue making into the future. I want to be making for a long long time.
How do you get this balance of presenting an ancient craft in a contemporary time, and how do you see your work functioning in environments of today?
Since I began making, I have surrounded myself with the hand crafted, from antique hand-woven linens, to roughly carved spatulas made by my children on holiday around a campfire. The objects for me become layered with meaning, memories, connections and love. I feel absolutely connected to the makers of these objects in my home, whether they are living now or lived 200 years ago.
Everything I make is rooted in the ancient. But I am so present in the here and now, making a living, harvesting and sorting willow, caring for our children, being a partner and friend to my husband. Perhaps I’m acting as some kind of translator because I don’t feel like I put in great effort into making these baskets more contemporary. I just want people to use them.
I guess that there is probably a curve or a stamp I want to put on the willow each time I weave. It is something beyond words, an aesthetic I found while swimming under water in my childhood which guides the way I want the lines to form and flow.
When designing and making, what aspects do you consider; the item's use, aesthetic, scale, presentation, environment?
I love for the objects I make to be functional, but it is also essential for them to be really beautiful too. If a woven piece is flat and used for serving and presenting food, it also needs to look stunning on the wall, like a work of art. I'm definitely drawn to larger works where I can really get my body fully involved in the making. I like to use my feet, my knees, elbows and teeth!
My eye is constantly drawn to repetitive lines, handsome strokes moving in space. My hands and arms mimic this movement as I work and I aim for all of these movements to be equally beautiful, like a dance. So, the process should be as beautiful as the final piece.
I love to present works as multiples, showing they are part of a continuously evolving process, a series of repeating lines and movements, that have somehow overtaken the way I view the world. I’m keenly aware of how the detail of each stroke of willow adds up to a final form, tiny jigsaw pieces made with movements which form the perfect picture.
Where do your references and inspirations come from?
I'm very grateful to all the makers who came before me. Without them I would have very little to work with. Baskets are still completely woven by hand and the techniques developed thousands of years ago haven't been improved at all. My inspiration often comes from the simplest agricultural baskets.
I’ve learnt from makers in Ireland, Britain and across Europe. I spend time looking at collections, visiting museums and handling work when I can. I collect baskets and spend hours looking at antiquated basketry books. Somehow all of this research reorganizes itself in my mind and over time new designs emerge which are very much based on forms or shapes that I have been quietly following. I sometimes think it’s like cooking and I am borrowing ingredients from different traditions and making my own dish.
How do you transpose your initial designs and drawings into 3D patterns, shapes and objects?
Designs often evolve from existing pieces, with a sense that they will have greater potential if they are scaled up or down, or if part of the form is accentuated. Often, they come from research I’ve undertaken and new skills I’ve been developing.
Tom and I sketch out ideas and then we usually draw out the objects at full scale on brown paper so we can see where we're heading and understand the proportions and relationships. This always helps me to understand how much material I’ll need and how long they’ll take. While Tom can clearly read detailed plans at a tiny scale, I always want to look at a plan which is closer to the full-size object. I like to see how the various pieces for a collection like this will relate to each other, and whether they’ll be happy sitting side by side.
How did you decide on the willow used and the pieces made for our installation here at TIINA the STORE. Tell us more about the images and story you are telling with the installation and drawings.
We absolutely love the clean aesthetics of TIINA the STORE and really wanted to play with the contrasting curves of the willow and the straight lines of the store.
Tom has designed the grid to suspend the simple shapes of the baskets, so they form intersections in the way they are hung. We love Venn diagrams, overlaps, common ground.
As we work with the willow in our studio there is often chaos; bundles of various lengths and thicknesses leaning around the room, rejected rods of willow piling up and preventing us using the back door, work in progress commanding most of the space with rods projecting out into the room and preventing any of us moving around too easily. Then the work is done, the basket completed, pruned back like a piece of topiary, the rubbish cleared away and all order is restored. This is the constant cycle. The pendulum swings between the chaos of intersecting lines and absolute order. Designs and ideas come slowly. They build over time. They partly come from the willow which is harvested once a year and becomes more precious as the year goes on. Often while I am making one batch of work, a series of other possibilities emerge. I realize I can take the willow on a different journey next time and I note this in my mind. Notebooks with quick scribbles hold the key to what will happen next.
Annemarie O'Sullivan at TIINA the STORE opens Friday 28th May 2021. Inquiries can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Images courtesy of Jonathan Bassett.