At the end of a long lane just north of the village of Wiston in West Sussex stands the wooden barn in which Andrew Groves and his wife Emma Ruth Hughes live and work. Groves, an illustrator by trade turned woodsman and forester, keeps an eye on the grounds that surround their home on behalf of the Wiston Estate that rents out the property. A few years ago Groves started to use the trees that grow nearby to make a range of handcrafted objects which he sells under the name Miscellaneous Adventures. Now, through a series of workshops, he teaches others how to make things out of wood.
Within the grounds of this part of the estate is a young vineyard and acres of much older woodland that each month become the setting for one of Groves’ day-long workshops. The objective is simple enough: to make a wooden spoon. But from splitting logs in the morning (most of which keep a fire going at camp), to carving a chosen piece with a short-handled axe and two knives in the afternoon – it’s a busy day for the people who take part. They leave having created something unique – an object they can use – and are given sandpaper and linseed oil so they can finish it off at home.
To date Groves has held three workshops and is planning to run another two in August and September before the clocks go back, effectively limiting the amount of daylight available to work in; such is his commitment to making in the outdoors. But in as much as Groves is a keen hiker (not to mention surfer) a connection to the natural world has been present in his art for a long time, uniting his work even when in Cornwall or London, Japan or Australia.
“I’ve lived all over the place – this was the next place on the list,” he says. “It’s how this has all happened; we have loads of material here and I just wanted to do something with it. I learned about the woods and how I could tie it in with what I was already doing with illustration. The new project started off as a way of linking the two – working in 3D, with my hands. All my illustration work is vector but I’m an outdoors person: Miscellaneous Adventures has developed as a brand on its own, but I want to link it back to illustration.”
A five-day trek in Swedish Lapland, where Groves encountered the area’s indigenous Sami people, cemented an idea to focus on handmade objects. “We saw what they’d made – it was amazing and so highly skilled,” he recalls. “I liked the way they worked with the natural environment, just with the materials they had, but in a very creative way. It’s not purely functional work, they make really beautiful objects. In a way my idea was to make up my own indigenous culture, which fitted with all my illustration work. So while it started as a bit of an art project, I began using the things and realised they’re actually really good!”
Groves’ father is also a maker of things (including guitars and jet engines) and his influence helped determine an outlook even before Groves started out as a self-taught illustrator, working initially for a greetings card company 2 3 before going freelance. “He instilled the idea in me that if you wanted something, you could just make it,” says Groves. To do this is now a balancing act between working for editorial and advertising clients and establishing the new venture, with help from Emma. “This is the first place where we’ve had space for workshops,” he says. “The tools are affordable, so I was able to give it a go.”
While he’s had a few years to get good at carving wood, the pieces Groves displays on a table are exquisite, and in a way do look like the work of an illustrator. The various spoons, cups and bowls are neatly carved, fitting snugly in the hand, but there are little details, motifs and patterns which clearly link to his professional work. Groves explains modestly that while the point of the workshops isn’t to try and come away with something of this quality, the process of making things is good practice for creative people and even a way of improving confidence as an artist.
“It becomes apparent that many of the benefits to be gained from the workshops seem to be connected to the material itself.”
So what does a day in the woods entail? Well, after matters of safety are discussed, there’s wood to be chopped. “I start with how to split wood and the first thing to use is the axe,” Groves says. “If you’ve not used one before they’re quite scary. It requires the most skill.” Groves then advises on how to choose a good straight piece of wood to work with (usually coppiced hazel but sometimes silver birch) and instructs on various axe techniques which, when demonstrated, are fantastically precise. None of your lumberjack over-the-shoulder stuff – that would seem to be for much larger forests and fairy tales. Instead Groves uses the axe quite deftly: fitting then that it’s the tool that also carves the majority of the wood away in the pursuit of the spoon. It’s a handsome object in itself, this axe, made by Gränsfors Bruk of Sweden.
At this point it’s important that the students think about the shape of what they want to make, says Groves, and it helps to sketch an outline in pencil. “With every technique you use to make a wooden spoon you can almost make anything else,” he says. “It’s a foundation – you use all the tools and can then go onto make bowls. It teaches you how to think about wood and how the structure of the grain works, which I think can be really useful.”
Next up, the knives. But not before a monumentally important piece of advice: stop carving between your legs right now – and simply move the whole operation over to one side. Then the immensely satisfying carving-proper can begin. As with the axe there are numerous techniques which Groves imparts; four different grips for the carving knife, for example. Once a rough spoon-like shape begins to emerge, it’s then time to use the crook knife – a double-sided crescent blade which is ideal for scooping out the bowl section. Groves asks if I would like to use the crook, which looks very sharp indeed. “I’m giving you a go with the most dangerous one,” he laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m a good teacher.” Cutting against the grain, the wood gives relatively easily. Groves doesn’t look too worried.
As I carve it becomes apparent that many of the benefits to be gained from one of Groves’ workshops – aside from being outside and in the fresh air – would seem to be connected to the material itself. “One of the things about working with wood is that you can start off with something in mind but the wood doesn’t allow you to make it,” says Groves. “You have to work with the structure and it’s not usually worth overcoming a problem if it presents itself – so you can end up changing the design completely. In that way I really like working with wood. With vectors in Illustrator everything is super controlled, and I’ve always found it quite difficult to loosen up in my illustration work – to let go and let mistakes creep in. With this I force myself to relax. I like to think it encourages a certain flexibility and freedom, a bit of openmindedness in people that could translate into their work.”
Illustrator and comic book artist Esther McManus attended the first Miscellaneous Adventures workshop and says that the experience has certainly had a positive affect on her work. “It’s made me see the value of play and experimentation,” she says. “I’ve been using more tactile media, and since going on the workshop I have really wanted to make objects a lot more – from wood, ceramics and paper. Rather than buying stuff, I have tried to improvise, mend and make things. Rather than inspiring the subject matter of my work, going on the workshop started a pleasant train of thought where I want to act and get things done, rather than try out endless variations. I get ideas down on paper quickly, and get more of a thrill from executing them.”
McManus says she is looking forward to employing some of the specific skills she learned in the outdoors – but has noticed the effects of the workshop more widely. “I can now see so many greater possibilities and my imagination runs wild,” she says. “I’ve started cycling. I’m moving house. I’m going to print my new comic once and for all. And I’m starting to find time again to visit the countryside, and sit in the park whittling. It feels like life has opened up a bit.”
This is praise indeed, but it sounds exactly like what Groves is hoping to achieve with the workshops – by just working with wood and a small selection of tools. “You don’t have to be some kind of Ray Mears to go and enjoy a day in the woods,” he says. “It’s useful to know how to use a knife and an axe, but it doesn’t mean you have to catch your own lunch. You can still have a small adventure.”
The next Miscellaneous Adventures woodcarving workshop is in August. More information can be found at miscellaneousadventures.co.uk. Places are limited to nine people per workshop, £105 per person. This includes the use of all cutting tools, materials and a Magic Tarpit provided by Poler Stuff in case of bad weather. Tea, coffee and snacks will be provided and participants also take home an exclusive honour patch, some sandpaper and materials for finishing their wooden object. The workshop takes place in the woods by Groves’ home near Wiston in West Sussex (Horsham is the nearest station). More of Groves’ illustration work can be found at andrewgroves.co.uk and Emma Ruth Hughes’ at cargocollective.com/emmaruth. Esther McManus’ website is esthermcmanus.co.uk