Woodworking has often been seen as a male preserve, with men far outnumbering women in the wood-based studio crafts. Yet the women of Aotearoa have a strong history of working with wood, one which dates back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and encompasses woodcarving, woodturning, furniture and carpentry.
Women, like men, have been drawn to woodworking for both practical and creative reasons, delighting in wood's special qualities and the challenges and rewards it brings.
By Rigel Sorzano
During the Arts and Crafts movement, women took up woodworking with such enthusiasm that, according to craft historian Ann Calhoun, "from 1890 to 1910, woodcarving was the pre-eminent Arts and Crafts activity for women in New Zealand". Decorative woodcarving and 'art furniture' by women regularly appeared at local art societies, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and the 'art and industrial' exhibitions of the time, and furniture like Jessie Elmslie's walnut settle, carved in about 1891, became a distinct feature of local craft production. Arts and Crafts practitioners often sought to express a local identity in their work with designs based on local flora and fauna, or derived from Māori carvings, and the Fenton and Buchanan chair from c.1910 is a particularly vivid example.
While its popularity declined, women's carving did continue into the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes on an "heroic scale": Ruth Nelson, born in Hawke's Bay in 1895, carved mantlepieces, doors, and other architectural carvings, such as the altar for the Woodford House Chapel, completed 1928-1930.
On display with the tables, boxes, coffers, chests, plaques and screens in the Women's Section of the 1939-1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition was a "pocket knife carving", more than 1.5 metres long, by Jane Brenkley of Hawke's Bay. Brenkley was a self-taught artist whose sketches, paintings and carvings were "sneaked in between housework, mothering, farmwork and midwifery". Pocket knife and paintbrush in hand, she applied creative ornamentation to all kinds of domestic items, from egg cups to tables, drawing on the natural world around her, and including a great deal of Māori imagery.
Women Woodworkers in the Studio Craft Movement
In the 1970s, woodworking began to claim a place in New Zealand's flourishing postwar studio crafts movement, and women were involved from the outset.
In Christchurch, Noeline Brokenshire had been carving, then turning wood since at least the mid-1960s, and the scale of much of her work was "staggering", with bowls up to 20 inches in diameter. Mary Bartos, who trained as a woodcarver and began turning in 1972, also enjoyed working at a large scale: "Little dishes don't somehow gel with me. I seem to work better on big pieces of wood". For Brokenshire, wood exerted "a strange, potent and everlasting attraction", while Bartos was “addicted to the excitement of what I can find in a piece of wood".
That "excitement of discovery" was also important for Gael Montgomerie, who became interested in woodworking while doing an architecture degree. After working for several years as a self-employed designer-builder, Montgomerie became a full-time woodturner in 1985. In the 1990s she began to introduce colour to her work, doing most of her turning in readily available sycamore rather than rare timbers, and embellishing the surfaces and rims of her vessels with paint washes and decorative elements. Montgomerie shared a workshop gallery with woodcarver Jill Gibens, who began carving in the late 1980s, and designed and made the crozier (pastoral staff) for Bishop Penny Jamieson's ordination in 1990. Gibens' love for "the sensuous warmth, smell and feel of wood" was evident in the design and finish of her spoons, bowls and figures, which often incorporated bird or animal references.
Noeline Brokenshire established New Zealand's first woodworking journal, Touch Wood, in 1983, and she was the inaugural secretary of the Furniture Group, a national studio furniture association set up in 1986. The 20-odd members included three other women: Karen Hight, in partnership with husband Peter; Ilana Becroft; and Harriet Lukens.
Becroft and Lukens were trained woodworkers, Becroft with a first-class diploma from the London College of Furniture. A self-employed furniture-maker from 1976 to 1979, she taught woodworking at secondary school before returning to self-employment in 1992-1995. Lukens joined furniture maker Carin Wilson's workshop in 1985, and worked on the boardroom furniture commissioned by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in 1986. Both women exhibited at the Furniture Group's "Design for Living" exhibition in 1987; Becroft's voluptuous rimu filing cabinet received favourable comment, as did Lukens' curved walnut screen with silk panels painted by artist Juliet Batten.
Out of the woodwork...and into the woodwork
Lukens and Becroft were members of Women Woodworkers Incorporated (WWI), a grassroots organisation set up in Auckland in 1984. WWI aimed to "advance women in the fields of woodwork, carpentry, joinery, building, cabinetmaking, wood turning, carving and all allied skills". Like Montgomerie, Becroft and other WWI members designed and built their own houses, and also taught woodworking to other women. Important WWI initiatives were the women-only vocational carpentry course at Carrington Polytechnic, Auckland, and TAWA, an organisation which offered women-only training in carpentry and other work-related skills. These, and other woodworking courses such as those run by the YMCA and the Canterbury Workers' Education Trust, offered women an opportunity to acquire not only the skills, but the confidence needed to work in the building industry, and to undertake their own building projects.
Although the Carrington and TAWA courses did not continue past 1990, many of the women who took them carried on, with 28% from Carrington's first six courses going on to employment in the building industry, and others "looking for work and continuing [their] interest with evening classes and tool use". Women builders were still very much in the minority, but they were starting to come out of the woodwork.
Header image: Jessie Mitchell Elmslie, Carved settle in walnut and Australian locust, c. 1891. Te Papa, GH025202
Elmslie, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was taught to carve by one of her father's parishioners, and made this piece when she was in her early twenties. It also functions as a chest, providing storage under the hinged seat.