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Women in Woodworking - Meet Julia Harrison

by Andrea Ramsay
Seattle, WA

Recently I helped Julia Harrison move a large madrone tree. The day was rainy and wet as it often is in the Pacific Northwest and the wood was big and heavy, the process took some time, we had time to talk. I learned that the tree came from a Seattle Public School property and Julia was working on a several year project to sculpt pieces for the school where the tree once lived. Talking with Julia I wanted to learn more, how did she come to working with wood as a medium? Filled with many questions this month we get to know Julia Harrison, sculptor, carver, jeweler, cultural anthropologist, educator and much more.

When I ask Julia she's clear to explain her first experience working with wood wasn't the best, she was in an introduction to sculpting class at school, working on her undergraduate degree, where they were asked to carve basswood with poorly maintained tools. She had a challenging experience and not one she wanted to return to so it's surprising that Julia has become a wood carver/sculptor, making beautiful small and large pieces. After undergraduate education she went on to study metal conservation in England at West Dean College and it is here that she discovered wood carving in a new light. It is here that she really found herself enjoying carving and enjoying wood. When working on metal object conservation many of the pieces needed to have wood components remade so she began to use the boxwood that was on the estate. It had been air dried for over ten years and she had a completely different experience. Julia found the experience transformative and this was a turning point for her work. She began to embrace wood and wood carving. She expanded her knowledge and had the opportunity to practice her skills. When Julia went on to teach English in Japan she found she couldn't do metal work as easily so she turned to working with wood. She could carry a very limited toolset and would pick up wood on the street and make small carvings in her apartment. During that year she carved 10 very small masks and began building a portfolio. For Julia the ability to work on wood carving anywhere at anytime is very appealing and can make the work very personal. As Julia says "Wood has so much life and personality and is often very tied to its locale. Carving a piece of wood from a cherry tree in the front yard and returning it in another form to that house, you discover the past of the tree and its life continues in another form."

We discussed her experiences being a woman in woodworking and Julia says she rarely thinks about it. She often makes jewelry and there are many women in this part of the field. That said, she does find when she is in a wood store she is given "the lady treatment" and often told she needs something different than she desires. Julia has worked around the world and in different areas she has experienced situations where traditional wood crafts were not open for women and she was told such. She says this attitude is changing but it's still out there.

If you're new to wood carving Julia recommends starting small and easy by limiting your number of tools to simplify the process. As she says "start playing." Julia reminds us that wood carving is the process of removing wood, like most of woodworking. "Seeing what needs to be removed is a major part of the process and for a long time you just see a blob, it can take a while before it becomes fulfilling. It's a mental exercise and a leap of faith to work through the process of creating something. Then all of sudden it becomes something that is not a blob." She says to try it, find out if you're a person who enjoys that slow reveal. Julia recommends starting with a spoon. You can use a fruitwood, a found green wood and create both convex and concave curves. "Everything I make is made up of small spoons." ( Check out last month's column for some more info on spoon carving ).

Currently, Julia is working on sculpting multiple pieces from that madrone tree for one of the local schools, while preparing pieces for a wood jewelry show in Japan and an upcoming show in Atlanta. This summer she is headed north to the Bunnell Street Arts Residency in Homer, Alaska to work in small carving inspired by Enku from 17th century Japan. In Homer she will create small carvings inspired by the people and place and leave these carvings with individuals who inspired them. These carvings are meant to be done quickly. She's a busy woman who continues to expand her skills and knowledge. As Julia says "Even after decades of doing it, transforming an idea into reality is still a powerful experience for me, a kind of alchemy."

Find out more about Julia by visiting her website

Andrea Ramsay is a dedicated student of hand tool woodworking since attending Port Townsend School of Woodworking and completing their three month intensive program. She left the technology world in 2014 and is happy every day that she traded in her laptop for a chisel. She does commissioned work out of her shop in Seattle's Equinox Studios.

Andrea can be reached directly via email at andrearamsay@gmail.com and you can check out her website at www.andrearamsay.com and follow her on Instagram at @andrearrr .

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