Spirit of the Woods - Cornwall Life meets Craig Harris the sculptor of wooden tree spirits
PUBLISHED: 13:38 18 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:26 20 February 2013
In this October issue we meet sculptor of wooden tree spirits, Craig Harris.
Although his father was a carpenter, Craig Harris never thought that he would end up working with wood. "Every year until I was 12, my family would come down to Cornwall for their holidays," says Craig. "There was a winding path from the hotel to the beach that passed through a small wood, and I remember spending most of my time playing amongst the trees."
Despite this fascination with wood, once he reached adulthood Craig worked at a youth hostel in Ludlow, on the England/Wales border. "Several youth hostels were closed down, and mine was one of them," explains Craig. "I looked around for another one and, as luck would have it, the Land's End Youth Hostel at Cot Valley had a job vacancy, so my partner, Linda, and I moved down to Cornwall in 1999."
Later that year, their son was born and, as Linda wanted to return to work and Craig wasn't enjoying his job at the hostel, it was agreed that he should become Byron's main carer. Craig spent the time in between nappy changes writing, but after completing seven novels and with no publisher willing to take them on, he knew he had to think seriously about his future.
"I remembered times in my childhood when I'd been happy playing in the woods," continues Craig, "So I went for a long walk in Tehidy. I happened to kick against a long stick, which I picked up and used as a walking stick for the rest of my journey. When I got home I thought I'd carve something on it." Today the stick, with its swirling, knotty pattern, sits in the corner of the living room to remind him of how he started. Craig enjoyed carving the stick so much that he went out and gathered more, but because he had had no formal training, he signed up for a carving course at the Art School in Penzance. The course didn't cover what Craig wanted to do, so he went out and bought and borrowed books and decided to teach himself.
For the next 12 months, Craig practised carving patterns on to all types of wood until he felt confident enough to start selling his walking sticks. "I booked a table at a craft fair," he says. "At first I was given a stall in the middle of the room, which was useless as you can't prop sticks up against fresh air, so I asked to be moved." Fortunately, his begging meant he was moved to a good position and he enthusiastically unwrapped his wares. "The fair was very quiet but I couldn't just sit there doing nothing, so I picked up some small off-cuts of wood I'd brought with me, got out my tools, and started carving faces or tree spirits onto them."
To his complete surprise, Craig sold the first one before he'd even finished it. He only sold two walking sticks in three days but every tree spirit he carved was sold, and most of them were unfinished when the buyer parted with their money. "I was amazed," says Craig. "I can't draw to save my life, but somehow I can carve a face onto wood. That was obviously what I was meant to do."
More research followed. Although there were plenty of people carving tree spirits in the USA, no one was yet doing it in the UK. In less than two years, however, Craig's work has been shown on television and in newspapers, and from selling at the occasional 5-a-stall craft fair, his tree spirits are in demand all over the country. During the last 12 months, he has shown at a prestigious design and craft show in Henley-on-Thames, the Chelsea Flower Show, and the Festival of the Tree at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. Closer to home, Craig has produced eight carvings for Tehidy Woods, the largest of which is 3.6m (12ft) tall, and which can be found spread around the lake on a children's adventure trail. He is currently working on two 2.4m (8ft) totem poles as part of a lottery-funded community regeneration project in St Buryan.
"Tehidy has been very good to me and allowed me to use its discarded wood, and in return I offered to carve these tree spirits. The publicity I received from this led to paid work at St Buryan. I've been very lucky in that I've never had to pay for any wood. I can use wood I find in Tehidy, and people are always ringing me up to ask if I want this wood or that."
Craig will have a go at carving on any wood. He especially likes beech, hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel. Holly is "a dream to carve", but he doesn't like birch as it tears "and it's a nuisance to split an eye or a nose of one of the spirits when it's almost finished".
The tree spirits are carved on tiny pieces of wood small enough to hang around the neck, or huge fallen trees, such as those in Tehidy, and any size in between.
"I don't sell them through galleries or shops," admits Craig, "just at craft fairs and shows that I can attend. That means I can keep the price down." A 30cm- (1ft) high tree spirit can cost as little as 20 and makes a popular gift. He has also made tree spirit bird-tables, plaques to hang on the wall, even candlesticks. And, if that were not enough, he has produced a 'how to' book on carving tree spirits and a set of tiny tools that children can use to practise carving on soaps and candles.
See Craig's work at Boscastle Food and Arts Festival, 4-5 October, and Carnglaze Caverns, 6-7 December.
Cornish Tree Spirits 01736 786777, www.cornishtreespirits.co.uk