EMILY PARKES meets Jeff Soan, a talented designer-maker and master of fantastic, wobbly, wooden articulated creatures. Jeff talks to Emily about the creation of his business as well as the interesting technique he uses to create his unique and sculptural work.
Tell us about your products.
My work reflects both a love of creatures, great and small, and a love of wood. I try to express the essential nature of the animals, birds and fish I create; sometimes by simplification, sometimes by attention to detail and, very often, by the sinuous movement achieved with the technique of articulation. A large part of my work in recent years has been investigating the possibilities of what I call wobbly wood, which is achieved by cutting the wood into narrow sections and securing it to canvas. This technique brings incredible life and movement to the various creatures, especially marine creatures and in particular, the seal which has become my signature piece.
How old were you when you realised what you wanted to do and how did you get started?
In 1985, I was 40 and had tired of the building work I had been doing for the previous 18 years. I visited a friend who had bought a wobbly rat, a folk toy from Chile. He was attending a course at the London College of Furniture and told me there was a toymaking course there. I joined this and became a qualified toymaker a couple of years later. At the time, the government was running a scheme called the Enterprise Allowance and this gave a small regular income for the first year of business.
I took a stall at Greenwich Craft Market and sold my toys there. After a year or so, I thought I should try out the articulating creatures that had so inspired me and the first batch of fish caught the eye of a passing TV producer who invited me on to a programme called Handmade. After that, there was no looking back. I started to develop the technique and tried all kinds of other creatures. I am still pursuing the possibilities.
Describe your work setting.
I have a garden workshop, which nestles amongst the trees and is covered with Virginia creeper. It overlooks a small pond; when I take break I wander out into the garden and look at all the wild life I have attracted to the garden with the pond, all the logs I have lying around and the composting that I love to do. My original workshop burnt down in 1996 and I considered a move to something bigger but when it came down to it, I knew I had to be in the garden. It is a lovely place to work.
What's the most rewarding aspect / the most frustrating?
The most rewarding aspect of my work is the effect it has on people. I just love to see the true delight on faces when they start to interact with the creatures I make. This seems to apply to all ages. My work appeals to the child in us all but it also appeals to more adult sensibilities. The most frustrating aspect is the lack of time to develop new work. New ideas can take a long time to come to fruition and I'm always under pressure to keep earning, and keep up with orders and commissions.
What are your tools of the trade, which is your favourite?
I use many different kinds of power tools but the bandsaw is at the centre of operations in my workshop. With this versatile machine I square the logs and re-size them. I use it as a kind of planer by passing a pair of rough sawn planks either side of the blade to flatten and match them. I use it to form the multiple parallel cuts used in the technique of articulation and finally I rough out, form, shape and sculpt the creatures with the full length of the blade.
What is your main goal for the next 6 - 12 months?
There are still many aspects to the articulating technique I use, that I have yet to explore, and there are still many creatures that I haven’t yet attempted to make. Over the years, I have made many large creatures quite small, so in recent years I've begun to make very small creatures really big. There is a whole world of tiny, fascinating mini beasts that I am interested in. I have started to bring a few extinct creatures like trilobites and dodos back to life and would like to pursue those ideas further. I was trained in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College and would love to spend more time painting so a long held ambition is to assemble an exhibition of my favourite creature, the elephant, painted, printed and sculpted.
What advice would you give someone starting a creative business?
There are many bits of advice I could give but I would sum it up in one phrase, "Always follow the path with the heart".
How did you come up with your company name?
The original name for my business was Toucan Toys, because I was forming the beak of a toucan when I decided I wanted to be a toy maker. It very soon became Toucan Play, as both my wife and I were partners in the business in the early years. I am keen on graphics and I think the business image and logos are extremely important. The toucan's head and beak fitted into an elliptical shape on my original logo. As the work became more sculptural and less toy-like, I changed the name to Jeff Soan :: Wooden Creatures which is not so much fun but more descriptive.
What's the ethos behind your work?
The work itself proclaims a love of the natural world and an obvious love of the material, wood. I reclaim and recycle as much as I possibly can. I gather a lot of my raw material from the streets and from skips and dumps.The waste timber that can't be made into anything in the Winter, goes on the workshop stove. In the Summer, I use it in my wood-fired oven to cook pizza and sourdough bread, and I compost the sawdust.