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Caithness News Bulletins May 2004

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Brough Woodturners Trip To South Africa
Brough based couple Liz and Michael O’ Donnell, have just returned from a six week trip to South Africa, where they were showing their skills to the locals.  They were invited by the Association of Woodturners of South Africa (AWSA) to attend their annual congress in Durban, to demonstrate their distinctive style of woodturning and decorating to the locals and other visitors to the congress.  Michael, who left Vulcan 30 years ago, to concentrate on his woodturning, turns all his bowls using mainly local sycamore, and Liz, a primary school art teacher until recently taking early retirement, is responsible for the eye-catching decorative artwork.

The couple have a workshop and studio at their home in Brough, where they produce their work, mainly decorative table pieces, before travelling the world exhibiting them and selling them.  So far their work has taken them to exhibitions in the USA, Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, Germany, France, and various other European countries.  They have written three books, and produced two instructional videos, which they did all the work for themselves, tackling the photography, video work and every other aspect of the process apart from the printing. One of the videos has been translated into French and German due to the demand for them in Europe.  They also have their own website, www.woodturning.uk.com, which of course Michael has created himself, through which they sell the videos and books as well as obtain commissions to produce pieces for customers.

The trip to South Africa, which was funded by both the Scottish Arts Council, and the Woodturners association, came about through one of their videos.  One of the members of the AWSA saw a video and asked them along to demonstrate their techniques to the congress.  They were then invited to extend their stay to travel around the country putting on demonstrations and master-classes to the local clubs. The congress itself saw them demonstrate to over 120 people, who were very interested to discover new ways of working. Michael prefers to turn green wood, which has just been cut, whereas the locals were used to using seasoned wood, which had been cut some time previous to working on it.  This did cause problems in the early stages as the locals let him cut down a tree to use for one of his demos, but it proved difficult, as the wood types were so different to those over here.  The tree he used was what was known as ‘ironwood’, a very hard, tough wood. He was told by one of the people attending the demonstration that “South African wood is not for wimps”.  Some of the unusual woods were ‘stinkwood’, ‘sneeze wood’, the ‘ironwood’ and he even tried turning mango.  After the congress their travels took them around various clubs from Pretoria in the north, down through Johannesburg, Durban and on to Cape Town.  During this time their hosts treated them brilliantly.  “We were made to feel like visiting film stars” explains Michael, “they wined and dined us, and showed us all the great sites in their country”.  “They were very enthusiastic about our work and very welcoming” says Liz, “They took us up Table Mountain, and to the Cape of Good Hope, as well as taking us to a Game Reserve and many other great places”.

The second part of their trip, which was funded by the Scottish Arts Council, took them to Swaziland, where they were to research the local crafts, with a view to developing new techniques into their own work. This involved visiting local craft shops and local trades.  During this part of the trip Liz and Michael stayed in tents, not normal tents, but big residential type tents, with fridges and other household appliances.  It was here that they had another eye-opener, when they discovered locks on the fridge doors. “I thought it was odd that they had locks on the fridge doors” explains Liz, “but then I noticed teeth marks around the door. This was to stop the hyenas getting into the fridges” The local hyenas had actually learnt how to open the fridge doors and empty them of their contents. “They were really horrible looking creatures” says Liz, “ and we had to keep chasing them away from the barbecue!”.

So it’s back to normal life for now for the couple, with Michael continuing his woodwork, while Liz is involved in the Mount Pleasant School outdoor classroom project. Michael is then due to go over to a 3 day seminar at the Brighan Young University in Utah, USA, in June, where he joins another 400 participants demonstrating many different styles and techniques. More trips and exhibitions are set to follow later in the year, as the couple continue to pass on their remarkable skills to people throughout the world. As Michael says “some people talk about how much money they’ve made at their work by toiling away all these years, but I don’t envy them one bit, because I’ve had all these amazing experiences and we spend our lives doing the things we enjoy”.  With all these stories to tell and an amazing lifestyle of travel through their work, who could argue?