Seagulls are not the only regular scavengers on the shoreline near Looe in Cornwall. Local drift wood artist Kirsty Elson is often there too, along with her partner, Steve Clark, and the couple’s two boys, Buddy, 10, and Herbie, five. The whole family is on the hunt for washed-up bits of wood, the unpromising scraps of flotsam that are the essence of Kirsty’s seaside-inspired sculptures.
‘Steve and I have been beach-combing for years, and I think it could be in my genes,’ she says. ‘My Mum says my Gran always took a carrier bag with her to the beach, just in case she found something useful. Wintertime is the best for finding wood, so we go out in all weathers. It can be hard when it’s cold as there’s a long walk down to our best spots and wet wood is heavy, but luckily Steve and the boys enjoy the hunt as much as I do.’
Drying the wood
Once they have returned home with their haul, the pieces of wood are left to dry naturally, sometimes for more than a year, before Kirsty transforms them into quirky, and deceptively simple, three-dimensional, harbourside scenes, complete with fishing boats, flagpoles, beach-huts, cottages and lighthouses. ‘I love using rough, weathered scraps of wood with old, peeling paint, especially when I can see layers of colour, rather than sanding them clean,’ she explains. ‘Anything chunky is good too, because that gives the chosen design more depth.’
Starting a small business
Despite studying for a degree in illustration, Kirsty only started using her creative talents professionally after Buddy was born, designing and making cards and accessories to sell at local fairs and online. ‘I enjoyed being at home and it was a way of making a little bit of money, but it was definitely very part-time,’ she explains. ‘Once our younger son, Herbie, started school, I had more time on my hands, and so I began concentrating on the drift wood sculptures.’
Living in a 200-year-old cottage close to the Cornish coast, Kirsty finds plenty to inspire her in the surrounding beaches and quaint fishing villages. Her simple style also draws on the naïve seascapes of a favourite contemporary painter, Elaine Pamphilon, and St Ives artist and fisherman Alfred Wallis (1855-1942). ‘People have said my work is like a three-dimensional version of his paintings, which is lovely and very flattering. I’m also inspired by the materials I’m using – the shapes, colours and textures are the starting point and they suggest ideas to me.’
Growing the business
In the last 12 months, online demand for Kirsty’s pieces has been steadily growing, particularly through social networking. To minimise the isolation of working on her own, she uses Facebook extensively for making contact with other artists and for reaching new clients. ‘I’ve become online friends with quite a few crafters, including some whose work has similar elements to mine. We chat and give each other feedback,’ she says. ‘I also put up images of my new pieces and they’re usually snapped up pretty quickly. People know that each is a one-off , so they have to be quick when they see something they like.’
Instant communication does have its downside, as Kirsty is very conscious of the commitment needed to keep her online presence fresh and alive. ‘You have to interact regularly with people, and that takes up time, so I’m usually online in the evenings,’ she says. ‘I spend most days making, but working from home means that there is the flexibility if, say, I want to meet a friend or go to something at the boys’ school.’
Kirsty is now in the lucky position of having as much work as she can manage, and she puts her success down to the combination of patience, hard work and a passion for her unique product. ‘I go to the beach whenever I can, and I’m always searching for that perfect piece of drift wood. I love being at home with the radio on, absorbed in creating my pieces – my day whizzes by.’
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