20 Minutes with Spencer Jenkins

Friday 6 July 2018

Spencer Jenkins creates beautiful functional sculptures from woven, carved and steamed wood. Each product is individually designed and handcrafted and his work evolves from ideas, hints and suggestions he receives from the landscape around him. Spencer enjoys physically transforming the identity of wood and he exhibits and regularly runs workshops across the country and has sold work at London's Sotheby Auctions. He runs furniture making courses, demonstrations, community events and outdoor school projects, building living willow structures, figures, sculpture, recycled art and landscaping.

F&C: What are you working on at the moment?

Spencer Jenkins: My project at the moment is a commission by Poet Alec Finlay to make 24 sculptures for The Mead Gallery, Warwick University, where I have been co-designing with Alec and fabricating the pieces for permanent installation. I am also in the middle of developing a new pair of oak (Quercus robur) and steel chairs.

F&C: Why did you become a furniture maker?

SJ: I didn't purposely set out to become a furniture maker, I have slowly evolved into making sculptures that double up as something functional. I work as a green wood artist and like to create sculptural forms encompassing anything from a skep for bees to salad tossers in the shape of sycamore seeds.

F&C: What inspires you?

SJ: Objects I find, beautiful curved man-made or natural forms, historical objects and artists like David Nash. 'Glass Chair' comes from an image of hand blown glass beakers, creating some great curves, from a magazine cutting that I picked up somewhere.

F&C: If your furniture were music, what kind of music would it be?

SJ: Ambient tunes with calming grooves.

F&C: What do you admire in the craft at the moment?

SJ: I admire the work of Sean Dare; it's sleek, sexy, traditionally-made and looks ultra modern – yet it feels like his furniture has been around forever.

F&C: Who has been your greatest mentor/role model?

SJ: My very long term partner, Alisha Miller who is a wonderful woman and talented artist, teacher and mother.

I want to thank Alisha for all her mentoring through the development of my practice; it would have been impossible without her support.

F&C: What comes first, design or technique?

SJ: On some projects I will have an idea, then I will use the right technique for the form but it can also work in a way that I'm into a particular technique and will design a piece having that method in mind. This generally happens when I'm half way though a build and passionate with the technique I'm using at the time.

F&C: Are we too obsessed with outdated modes of work?

SJ: Making something with your hands is primal and if this is an outdated mode of work, then no, we should embrace it.

F&C: How or where do you exhibit your work?

SJ: I use galleries, internet-based galleries, the large London and local shows, open-studio events, green wood events and my website. Exhibiting is hard work but essential for me getting people to experience what I make.

F&C: How comfortable are you with working at someone else's design?

SJ: I enjoy making and going through a process from design to the finished product, so I'm fairly comfortable with working on someone else's design. But it is different to making my own ideas because I have to educate someone on the limits of the materials and techniques I use, which generally changes their design.

F&C: What's your creative process like?

SJ: Shape; it all starts with the shape of something I have picked up from somewhere. It could be a pebble off a beach in Norfolk to a seed on a canal side near Wolverhampton. It’s the objects I find that get me thinking creatively.

F&C: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?

SJ: I consider myself as both; artist first then craftsman. My ideas are art- based but I have to be a craftsman to make my work.

F&C: What's the practical process you undergo when moving through the stages of a project?

SJ: Once I've selected a form I then sketch from the object or sometimes go straight into making a model then sketch from that. For me, the model is very important in my process and when the model is ticking all the right boxes, I venture into my workshop and start to scale up the components by drawing freehand on large sheets of paper to make templates. After this is done, I start my build whether it be steaming ash (Fraxinus excelsior), cleaving sycamore, weaving willow (Salix spp.), bending steel or carving a piece of oak.

F&C: Do you think furniture making is in danger of disappearing?

SJ: A girl of 15 spent two days on one of my rustic chair courses and left with an amazing chair that she was very proud of. I don't think furniture making will die out because this young person said she loved furniture and wants to go on from school to train as a furniture and cabinetmaker. Furniture making will evolve over time but I think there will always be a love of wood within furniture making.

F&C: What advice would you give to someone starting out?

SJ: Work very hard and believe in yourself.

F&C: What irritates you about the industry?

SJ: Expensive exhibition spaces at trade shows and not being able to buy small quantities of fixings for bespoke projects.