Kathleen began making baskets in her late 50’s when she took her first few days away from milking cow's every day, twice a day. She was taught by Joe Hogan in Loch na Fuaiche and that first lesson was the beginning of a life-changing journey. She now grows her own willow, by her farm, on the banks of the River Boyne.
We had wanted to visit Kathleen since our first email exchange. There was something about her approach that had us intrigued, she did not disappoint. Living by the seasons, planting, teaching, learning, cutting and making ... she is a pleasure to spend time with.
How did your interest in willow weaving start?
It started because I couldn't afford to buy baskets and at the time I met a girl who suggested I visit Joe Hogan up in Loch na Fuaiche and learn how to make them. So I went to visit Joe, my first time away from the farm and all the milking.
A life changing journey. You know the way down. On entering the valley ... it had been raining ... water was cascading down the mountains and I was mesmerisied ... nearly drove over the edge as I tried to take it all in. I just found it was ... really life changing.
I have been every year since, Joe says I don't need to come back but I go back once a year and each time with a particular problem I need his thinking on.
Do you have a favorite willow to work with?
I like a red willow which we call Chermisina, I like it because it is red and ... because it is so beautiful. I also particularly like Harrisons, I have it growing amongst the ducks. It is an all purpose willow, it works easily, it is strong. It does have a mind of its own but you have to impose your will on it and it always makes a good basket.
I think if I had another child and it was a girl I would call her Chermisina, I like the word.
Or I would dress in red all the time, running around shouting Chermisina, Chermisina!
"It does have a mind of its own but you have to impose your will on it and it always makes a good basket."
Did you make out of necessity at first?
Everything is a personal necessity, not necessarily financial, I do it because it is an expression and I have made .... I have always made something, always, I can not remember when I wasn't making something. My daughter is the same, always making something and her daughters are always making something and my father and his father. Always creating with their hands .... and their hearts.
Do you prefer to make functional pieces or more abstract / contemporary pieces?
I haven't the make-up to do too many contemporary pieces. I do functional pieces quite well, I try to do a little more contemporary work but I haven't got the mental make-up for it. I have made a few very good ones but only very few.
Functional is still very beautiful, it has its purpose. It is graceful, a function can bring a real beauty.
Do you have a favourite tool to work with; there must be many you use along the way? A satisfying action?
Well it is a tiny pair of clippers. They are Japanese bonsai side clippers. They are slightly angled so they allow you to get in very close and clip. I have a favourite knife too.
I also have great big secateurs I use for cutting the willow. Most people would harvest with a hook knife. But because my wrist is arthritic the pulling action is not good.
Do you have a next challenge, an object you would like to make, a change in scale and style of basket you would like to take on?
I am always open to new techniques and approaches. I suppose my coffin was one thing I always wanted to make. So that was one big challenge. To me baskets are always progressing and will always.
I am 67, I don't think that's ancient, but I am in a groove and know I won't really go out on a limb. In saying that I do take my work seriously, nothing is too big. I don't consider anything too tough or hard to do, I just do it. So whatever comes along I will give it ago. But I don't think I will be making other peoples coffins.
"Functional is still very beautiful, it has its purpose. It is graceful, a function can bring a real beauty."
Is the farm, the lifestyle it brings, is it a big influence on your work?
Yes but I think really it is basket making that has had the bigger influence on my life.
Basket making has taught me that you can ask willow to do something but you can not make it! So if you are making a basket and you want a piece of willow to go in and out a certain way, but it doesn't want to go, you have to stop and look at the reasons why. Is it too big for that spot? Is it the wrong spot? Are you using the wrong willow? What is the reason? If you force the issue the willow will kink and when it is kinked the willow is ruined. It doesn't break but it ruins the flow. You want a graceful movement.
Now this may sound overly philosophical but it really really did have an influence on my life, I found if you try to force an issue it doesn't work well for either party.
It is a very active craft, growing, cutting, making?
Yes, I love it, even just cutting the willow. There is so much to do each day. I love my life here. I like what I do very much and I hope I don't ever have to stop basket making, I am glad I stopped farming as it would have done me in.
It can, despite the arthritis I just keep going.
We had to leave eventually and over the next few mornings we enjoyed the most delicious poached eggs for breakfast.
Thank you Kathleen