Meet the maker: Judy Simmonds

In this instalment of Meet the Maker we introduce Judy Simmonds, a new tutor running short courses in perigord spiral basket and celtic knot platter. Judy takes inspiration from a variety of places and cultures but was particularly influenced by her time with Norbert Faure at the willow cooperative in Villaines-les-Rochers. In this interview we learn about what drew her to basketmaking and her philosophy to artisanal craft.

Can you share a bit about your journey and how you got started with basketmaking?

In Peru, there are two villages – each on either side of a deep river gorge. The footbridge spanning the chasm is hand-woven with grass. When the bridge needed replacing, the villagers from both sides gather the grass, twisting stalks into string, then three strands twisted to make thin cable, continuing until a hefty cable is the thickness of a forearm. Four main cables are needed; two as handrails and two as lower edges for the footway. Then the same weaving method produces thinner upright and walkway cables, closely spaced. Villagers are spread over the hillside weaving away together for days. When ready, the new cables are tied to the old bridge which is then cut away on one side of the gorge and hauled across. This powerful weaving image stayed with me for a long time.

When life got a little quieter, that bridge memory re-surfaced and urged me to weave. I studied willow constructions with Malcolm Seal, Linda Lemieux, Joe Hogan, Tom Hare, Welsh coracle builders, and split ash with American Jamin Uticone. I was smitten by the Perigord spiral basket and after ten years devoted to practicing from a book and DVD, I travelled to France for advanced technique with Norbert Faure at the willow cooperative in Villaines-les-Rochers on the Loire and in a later visit with old friend David Drew, an acknowledged master of all things willow and an early pioneer in studying and perfecting the Perigord basket.

Can you share a memorable experience or moment in your career?

David Drew, (whose collection was acquired by the Crafts Council before he moved to France more than 30 years ago), is an exponent of the view that bad work needs to go. In the beginning stages of learning, keeping past work enables you to mark progress and pin-point areas needing improvement. Later, baskets which are faulty or just feel wrong are not a reflection of present work, or your ambitions as a maker.  Using them, displaying them, or discounting ‘seconds’ does not support professional progress. 

Villaines-les-Rochers on the Loire is a troglodyte village full of basketmakers.  Historically, the caves had constant  humidity and temperatures  perfect for working willow.  It is home to one of the oldest cooperatives in France at over 160 years old.  A week of improving the Perigord basket with other makers was one of the happiest I can remember, riding my bike along the river early morning for days of concentrating on a passion.  The second visit was spent with David Drew whose exacting approach to the ‘Perigourdin’ helped towards polishing techniques. The finale was a ritual burning of my less than satisfactory examples. The forms glowed like molten metal before suddenly crumbling to ash. Starting the next bundle of willow became a fresh beginning. 

What inspires your work?

‘Excellence’ - Whatever artistic sphere one encounters, a special quality will make a hand-crafted object stand out and become memorable. That becomes a spur to push further in one’s own work. Finding that ‘signature’ touch when you make a basket is a cushion to rest against in an otherwise strenuous and often discouraging exercise.

‘Essence’ - Good cooking uses few excellent ingredients, distilled for maximum flavour then presented carefully and simply.  This ‘essence’ can be carried across to other creative disciplines and I enjoy seeing willow pieces offer this principle. The work of Pierig le Maillot has this quality.  When you find jewellery, textiles, architecture, and other well designed and well-made objects, look for the essence and use it in your work.

I was inspired by the range of cultures – Polish, Spanish, East Asias – which share the Knot form. Five or six groups of carefully calibrated sections travelling in an identical ‘away, under, over and back sequence’ echoes the curling Celtic Knot form. It is pleasing in that the more it is tightened, the more bowl-like the platter becomes. The tensions exert an interdependence.   

Why do you believe courses in heritage craft skills, such as basketry and willow work, are so important in ensuring their viability and future?

The domestic environment at one time contained nothing unless made by hand – textiles, furniture, walls, floors, doors, windows, toys, jewellery, pottery, clocks, tools, books, agricultural needs such as leather harnesses and boots, horseshoes, ploughs, crops, and food.  We are generations distant from this time, yet still we sew, carve, weave fabrics and baskets, pot, make paper, work with metals, in a phrase – Heritage skills.

Programmes such as The Repair Shop take us deep down into the way older things are made and put together.  Quality and craftsmanship mattered. Mending was what our ancestors did. Shopping is what we do now, but products we are offered are often less well designed, less well assembled, are fairly costly and do not last.

The drive to create something while mastering processes and techniques, remains a human instinct. Working with the hands is beneficial to the brain and sense of well-being.  It inspires confidence and encourages the ability to concentrate in young people.  With a few simple successes, making things by hand encourages the impulse to ‘create’ and to question the impulse to passively ‘acquire’ and ‘consume’.

Encouraging an interest and experiencing training in Heritage Crafts is a direct route to the past.  ‘Basket’ is usually known to come at the end of an internet purchase.  See what happens when someone learns to make one.

You are teaching the short courses ‘Perigord spiral basket’ and ‘Celtic knot platter’ at West Dean in January – what can students expect from your courses?

Everyone absorbs new information and techniques in different ways at a different pace. Tuning in to the individual is key.  Learning from each other is invaluable.   Setting high, attainable aspirations stretches existing abilities. I enjoy creating a light-hearted atmosphere coupled with serious intentions and ambitions.

Understanding how to ‘read’ a basket helps to grasp the reasoning for each stage of making before even picking up the willow. New technique sometimes means allowing time to unlearn the old. Investment in repetition, abandoning and re-starting really pays dividends as feeling solid and confident in the beginning stages influences a satisfying, well-formed and accurate finish. 

Students should finish the course feeling they understand the unfamiliar, have new technique in their ‘muscle memory’, can replicate the experience in their own working environment, and leave with a creditable working model which is also a useable, attractive basket!

For Judy's upcoming courses click here.