Australian woodworker Carol Russell’s carvings of animals are a visual form of haiku. With a few judicious swipes of the knife, she transforms small chunks of wood into figures so evocative that it’s a challenge to avoid reading into them distinct personalities and tales of adventure. The curious cock to a dog’s ear, the satisfied curl of a cat’s tail – these and other details bring her animals to life. So when Christopher Schwarz asked whether I had any ideas for the dustjacket of “Shop Tails” (which we anticipate receiving from the printer in early October), an image of Carol’s animals was one of my three suggestions. As it turned out, Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick and Kara Gebhart Uhl are also fans of Carol’s work. So Lost Art Press commissioned her to carve a dog and a cat. She surprised us all by adding a second cat, this one orange; we instantly named him Tony.
Scattered among the animals in Carol’s Instagram feed you’ll also find the occasional rowboat. Carol grew up in Tasmania, a small island off the south coast of Australia known for its pristine wilderness and endemic timber species. Tasmania has one rare native species, Huon pine, that has been traditionally used in boatbuilding and high-quality furniture making; its high methyl eugenol content makes it resistant to marine borers. Carol says “it’s very rare now, and a protected species; there is definitely romance attached to it, partly due to its beauty and the fact that it stands as a monument to the amazing forests it grows in.” She finds a special charm in Huon pine boats – they evoke “that daydreaming aspect, that [English children’s book writer] Enid Blyton [thing] of [children] floating away for a day of adventure without their parents. And usually as a kid you’re accompanied by a scruffy dog that’s up for anything. That’s the dog I’m always trying to capture.”
“We always had animals,” Carol says. In the 1960s, when she was a child, her family lived on the edge of Launceston, right next to open fields. The area where they lived was far from prosperous. Many people couldn’t afford to have their animals spayed or neutered, so there were always stray, injured and abandoned animals around. Her family took in most of those who showed up at their house. In addition to dogs and cats, her brothers occasionally found other animals to rescue. One time they brought a little kangaroo home, where it joined the other animals in the house and curled up by the fire. “At one stage we had 13 cats, three dogs, a kangaroo and a sheep,” though the sheep had to stay outside. “It was completely mad! We just had a little suburban house with a veggie garden.”
It was another time, she points out. “We’re not encouraged to keep wildlife now, and many groups work hard to re-house animals back into the wild. It was a lovely way to grow up, though.”
Her father, Len, worked on telegraph lines for the postmaster general. One day, before Carol was born, he fell from a telegraph pole onto his back. The injury left him in terrible pain that became chronic. Although he was able to walk, he couldn’t walk far. Nor could he drive. In response to his dramatically changed condition, he planted a vegetable garden and grew most of the food for his family of eight – he and his wife had six kids, of whom Carol is the youngest. “He was enormously methodical,” Carol says. “The garden was the focus of his life. He couldn’t do a lot. A bit each day, though, mounted up. I grew up with the most amazing food.” All of his friends had served in the Second World War. He hadn’t gone because he’d had a double dose of the smallpox vaccination by mistake and had become so sick that he was repatriated home. Survivor’s guilt led him to drink heavily in the early years, though he eventually got that under control. “I never knew him to work [at a job], but he was a very wise, very gentle person, a lovely man. He adored my mother and would sing old love songs to her. It drove me mad, but now I can see how sweet it was.”
Although her dad received a disability pension, it was modest. “Which is why my mother was always coming up with schemes to make more money. She would send us door to door, selling cakes. We’d have big trays of lamingtons (a sponge cake rolled in chocolate and coconut) and highly decorated cupcakes and slices. They looked amazing; no one would refuse when confronted with these delicious goodies.” At Christmastime her mother sold dozens of her Christmas cakes and puddings; people would order them months ahead, and storing them took all the available cupboard space.
Carol’s mother, Valerie, had been born in Dublin. As a young woman, her grandmother had fallen in love and married an Irishman, who was “quite a devilish man.” The family emigrated to Tasmania, where Carol’s grandfather left them and went to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to grow tea. He never contacted them again. Valerie was largely raised by her grandparents and was a voracious reader, as she remains today at the age of 92. Carol’s father was born in Tasmania of Welsh ancestry. He and her mother met in Launceston around 1950; each brought children to the marriage, and they had three more together.
“My mother was enormously resourceful and enthusiastic about everything,” says Carol. “Always making and growing things.” None of this was unusual where they lived during the ’60s and early ’70s, she points out. Lots of people made what they could and bartered their work for that of others. “The lady who made clothes made clothes to swap for homegrown vegetables or preserves. That was just what people had to do to get by.” Her mother, to this day, sometimes says, “’I think I should go and get a job.’ She hates idleness.”
Given her love of animals, Carol wanted to be a veterinarian. Throughout high school she had a weekend job working with a local vet, a Scotsman “who distilled whiskey in the tearoom out the back of the consultation room” because his wife wouldn’t let him do it in the house. “I’d sit next to it drinking my tea and hear it gurgling away. I learned so much from him; he was so generous to people and animals and was never too busy to teach me what he could.” When they delivered puppies by caesarian section, the vet would hand them to her and she’d rub them to get them warmed up. “I loved it,” she says of this work. “It was just a delight, but it could be sad, too.”
As a child, Carol had been a huge reader and one of those kids who could pick up almost anything. She was particularly interested in drama, English and art and adds, “I had a healthy opinion of myself as well!” When she was 17, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) offered her a cadetship as a journalist, a type of internship that involved research and writing articles. All was going well until the day she was flicking through a newspaper and happened on an ad for a crew to sail a 35′ trimaran to New Guinea. She applied to be a crew member, forwent the cadetship and left Tasmania “on a little red yacht sailing off into the sunset in winter.” She quickly adds: “If my son tried to do [the same thing] now, I’d lock him in a room!”
She and her crewmates had a wonderful time. The Bass Strait between Tasmania and Australia has beautiful islands with bird rookeries and seal colonies; they saw “a lot of amazing things over the course of two months while sailing around photographing wildlife.” It was July, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the other crew members, Carol had no previous sailing experience and found even the most mundane aspects of the trip rewarding. One of her jobs was to cook for the crew. There was also a routine in which each crew member spent two hours at the tiller while the others rested. They were on the water in what felt like “the middle of nowhere. I’ve never forgotten it, that solitary sense,” she recalls today. “You could see the phosphorescence in the water, and sometimes, dolphins would whiz past leaving a silver trail behind them. I think that’s why the boat thing is strongly ingrained in me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of freedom.”
But it wasn’t all idyllic. The man who owned the boat was insufferable. If he lost at chess, he’d go to his bunk and sulk for days. “After four months or so I got really fed up with it.” By the time they arrived at Mooloolaba Beach in Queensland, she’d been in a quarrel with the captain. She got her backpack of clothes and said she was done, so he rowed her to shore and left her there. It was nearly 40 years ago, long before the widespread availability of cell phones. She had only just turned 18. “I watched the boat sail off and thought ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Her sense of pride kicked in. She couldn’t go home just four months after leaving, so she made up her mind to head for Brisbane, the nearest big town. She met some people on the beach who offered her a ride. “I didn’t choose Brisbane,” she says of the city where she’s spent most of the intervening 30-plus years. “It just happened. At that stage I was a blank slate with a little bag of clothes and no money, but lots of enthusiasm and self-confidence. It’s amazing how you can rebuild a life. I often think back to that little bag of clothes…” – quite a contrast with the many possessions and responsibilities that she, like many of us, has collected over the years.
For income in Brisbane she worked at Aroma’s Café, one of the first places there to roast and blend its own coffee. Sometimes she worked as a model – it was a great time for emerging clothing and jewelry designers. In time she met new friends, one of whom, Wayne Crotty, was a musician/furnituremaker. “That was it,” she remembers. “I saw what he was making and was so astounded that you could make a table. I’d never thought about how things were made before.” She asked him to teach her. He did. She worked with him for 10 years.
Her first job was a Shaker table with a tripod base. She learned about mortise-and-tenon joinery, dovetails, sharpening and setting up machines. “Wayne was not a fine woodworker. He was a good ‘practical’ woodworker. He knew a lot of people. He took me to meet people that owned areas of forest.” They would selectively choose and mill particular trees, being careful not to take too many. They also salvaged a lot of logs from forestry clearing, so she saw the whole process and developed a deep understanding of wood as a material. Of the men she worked with, she says “some of them appeared quite gruff and very blokey, not the sort of people I thought would take a young woman very seriously. I discovered, though, they loved the fact I was so keen. If you’re interested and you listen, the world opens up to you.”
She also ventured into the world of building theater sets. While working for a company that made stage sets for big events, she learned about what she calls “practical construction” – nothing precious or fine, but more “how to turn a ballroom in a grand hotel into a fantasyland or forest for a particular event or conference. You all worked together really hard on tight deadlines and drank a lot of cheap coffee.” The comradery was fabulous.
By her late 20s Carol was ready “to make things that were really special and would mean something to people.” She began to design her own pieces and developed her own customer base; people would come to her with an idea that she would sketch, then build for them. For about seven years she did one-off pieces, working in Wayne’s shop, with the occasional exhibition of work that was more creative. “I started reading all the [issues of] Fine Woodworking magazine I could get my hands on,” as well as books by James Krenov and George Nakashima. She was especially interested in Japanese design. Unfortunately, she has few photographs of her work from that time.
In her early 30s, when she was running her custom furniture business, Brisbane furniture maker Simon Hooper, whom she calls “a real hero of mine,” asked if she would come to work with him at Bell Brothers, an old Brisbane furniture making institution. Carol leapt at the chance. The company also owned a funeral parlor; the shop was next to the coffin makers, and they often needed extra people to help with funerals. Carol would have to change out of her shop clothes into a black suit and drive an old Mercedes hearse. After the funeral it was back to the bench. “It gave you this crazy perspective on life,” she remarks. “If this board was twisted, well… It’s not the end of the world; it can be straightened. Everything is really about people,” she realized. “It’s not about stuff. People have been very generous to me with their knowledge and I have encountered mostly kindness.”
“I’ve not had formal training at all,” she continues. “We have some amazing woodworking schools [in Australia] now, and I think I would just love an opportunity to dedicate two or three years to learning.” Lacking that option at the time, she traded labor for instruction. There were no apprenticeships available in the kind of work she wanted to do; it was the 1990s, the dark age of particleboard and MDF. She wanted to work with solid wood. She picked up any new skills she could. As a result, she calls herself “a bit of a Frankenstein woodworker.”
Carol had met her husband, Nick, in 1996 through a mutual friend. They met at a country pub, The Dugandan Hotel in Boonah – “a pub in a paddock,” she calls it. Nick was working as a consultant for an IT company and had just returned from an assignment in Sydney. It was unlikely they would ever have met, but their friend was celebrating a birthday at that particular pub that day. They married in 1998.
The year before, she’d taken a job working in the showroom of Carbatec, a woodworking supply company that had recently begun importing the kind of high-quality tools no one else was selling. They also imported traditional woodworking tools made in Japan. “It was a wonderful place full of beautiful tools and enthusiastic people,” she notes, explaining why she left her own furniture-making business for a job in retail. “The prospect of a steady job was pretty enticing, too.”
When her employers announced they wanted to offer classes, she decided to teach joinery. She went to night classes to learn teaching skills and her work shifted to teaching and writing. Carbatec also had a fabulous catalog that required Carol to write a lot of copy. The owner of the business, Geoff Lowe, had sons-in-law who were American and worked in the business; the new American-made tools were quite an attraction. “Geoff was very generous,” she recalls, “always giving me the new tools and beautiful pieces of wood to try [them on].”
Carol continued to read woodworking publications while working for Carbatec and was inspired by examples of work done by other women. She traveled with the company to Japan, where she met craftspeople and learned about Japanese woodworking tools, which prompted her interest in hand-tool woodworking. For years she’d worked with tools made by Stanley, Record and Marples, good solid stuff made in England of Sheffield steel. But “to pick up a Lie-Nielsen plane or a Japanese chisel…there was real poetry in that.”
Carol started to write for Australian Wood Review, published by Linda and Raf Nathan. She was thrilled to be the first woman on the cover – around 1999, she thinks. Australia had other woodworking magazines that she says were full of “more practical” stuff, but Wood Review was different – it published work of fine quality and cutting-edge design. The Nathans employed her part-time as an editor for a while, and it struck her that she’d returned, in a way, to the world of journalism where she’d started at the age of 17.
Animals & Life
When Carol was 38, she was sharing a workshop with two renowned Australian makers, Roy Schack and Robert Howard, as well as a few others. It was an inspiring environment with a lot of creative energy.
One day, 32 weeks pregnant, she had a brain hemorrhage. Fortunately, she survived, and her son, Hugo, was born without damage. But recovery took a long time and has changed Carol in so many ways that she now thinks of her life as “before” and “after” the aneurysm. Although she’s loath to use those changes as an “excuse” (her word), she hasn’t made much furniture since. The hemorrhage left her painfully sensitive to noise – routers, shapers, thickness planers and other machines all became unbearable. Her sense of sight was also affected. She tried to go back to furniture, “but it just wouldn’t come together.” Four years later, after Nick completed a doctorate, he was offered a post-doctoral position in the Netherlands and they lived there for two years. Carol didn’t make anything during that time; instead, she worked as what she calls a handywoman for the local school. But there’s a great tradition of carving in the Netherlands, which sparked her interest in that field.
After Carol and her family returned to Australia, Carbatec hired her back. One day she made a spoon in a class with Australian woodcarver Gary Field. “It was the first thing I’d really done in all that time [since the aneurysm]. The idea [is] that you start with a whole, and you take away. What you’re left with is the object.” After being wowed by the process of building a Shaker table in her 20s, she experienced a second epiphany in the spoon carving class. She decided to become a wood carver. “You’re going along and all of a sudden your life’s completely derailed,” she explains. “You have this partner who’s trying to make things right, but you can only make things right to a certain point. I was a furniture maker. But I wasn’t a great furniture maker, I never felt completely at home, I had moments where things were quite good. But [carving] was something I felt quite passionate about. It felt like coming home. Other than a band saw, I don’t use machines anymore.”
Whether you’re building furniture or carving a cat, she says, the work is “so much about people,” and never more so than when you’re teaching others to build or carve, as Carol does these days. “[Teaching is a skill] that you get to share with people. It literally saves people. It’s saving people now, in these really difficult times.” She refers specifically to Australia’s latest wave of lockdowns, which have filled many with a sense of foreboding. “That little bit of peace of mind people get from making something or growing something with their own hands can just keep them going. It’s the one part of their week that they can rely on.” They come to class and can – well, must – really focus on the work, because it’s so intense.
“I always look at animals,” Carol tells me. “I stare at them constantly. Nothing has ever brought me so much joy as creating these animal forms and trying to distill the essence into this little block of wood.” She compares the intensity of packing so much into a tiny form to the Japanese art of netsuke; it’s “an implosion instead of an explosion, an exercise in not overusing your skill – a couple of cuts in the right place.” In terms of her work, she says, “the world is shrinking into something small, but I’ve needed all the bigness of everything I’ve ever done to be able to distill it down into this small gesture.”
Carol and Nick have no animals of their own at present, which only enhances her appreciation for those other creatures who share many of our lives. There’s an Australian tradition of observing Anzac Day every April 25 to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who participated in the Gallipoli Campaign early in the First World War, and all the wars where Australians have served since. It’s a national day of remembrance when people go to a cenotaph and listen to speakers and pay their respects. “We have a lovely local service that we go to, but it can be hard to hear because the PA system isn’t so great,” she laughs. What prompts her to mention the occasion is that “many people take their dogs, it’s in a park close by our home.”
This year she really noticed the dogs, “looking at their body language and how they’re looking at each other, wagging their tails, then looking up at their humans and waiting so patiently. There was this whole canine world below people’s knees. Watching them, I just felt that unadulterated joy that animals give us and we seem to give them – it’s like your heart is going to burst.”
Hugo is heading to university in Melbourne. Carol and Nick plan to move back to Tasmania. Both are looking forward to having four seasons, a pleasure Nick recalls from his native England, after so many years in Queensland’s tropical climate. And Carol’s looking forward to living with animals again, as well as developing her carving practice further.
In the meantime Carol has a beautiful workspace in Brisbane she shares with fine leather workers Blue and Grae and Andrea and Gary Fitzpatrick, who have transformed an industrial space into the beautiful Botanick Nursery. It’s a space where she can carve and teach. “It has an incredible atmosphere, I feel so fortunate to be there. About 35 regular students come through each week and carve, chat, drink coffee and share their stories. Life is good.”
Read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.