Azra Bano & Alex Walshaw
Studio Tour - January 2018
Words: Jo Dowsett
Photography Carolyn Carter
Creative duo Azra and Alex live in the Black Country, West Midlands. They met in Lincoln, where Alex is originally from and Azra was studying for her fashion degree. Their lives continue to entwine as partners, as parents to their three children and as creatives. Azra is a textile artist and Alex, a wood carver. They create products that celebrate craftsmanship, texture and natural materials.
Form, proportion, composition and colour resonate through their works and their pieces sit naturally and effortlessly side by side. All their making takes place in their home but inspiration is brought in from the outside. The natural world, flora and fauna, pattern, structure and contour are innate properties to their individual works.
Azra’s studio is at the front of their house with a large window, letting in natural light. The centre of her studio is dominated by her workstation, hand made by Alex. The wood is reclaimed boards from Birmingham’s REP theatre (Alex works as a scenic painter there when he is not working on his own projects) and it is here where all of her planning, designing, printing and musings take place.
She has an industrial brother sewing machine in one corner and shelves laden with her beautiful, tonal, textural cushions in the other. Lavender sachets, baskets, lamp shades and bags line the room, each made from Azra’s beautiful and thoughtful hand printed textiles. She has an inspiration wall where she works through designs and colour choices and enjoys having these at eye level so she can look straight at them, stand back and play around with her creative decisions. Shelves containing her finished cushion covers and lampshades are ready to be packed and shipped to lucky customers.
Through the house, past the courtyard and into the garden is where Alex creates. His work space is idyllic and makes you forget you are in the city. The garden slopes upwards and is shielded by a dense bank of reaching, native trees providing shelter. At the foot of the trees is the most incredible tree house any child could ask for, all made by Alex’s hand. At the forefront of the garden is his work space; an open air wood carving area with a thick-pile carpet of sweet smelling wood shavings. Tables and benches sit proudly in the space with their spindle legs grounded in the earth.
A roof provides shelter from the rain, allowing Alex to work in all weathers but retaining the sense of being outside and open to the elements. All his equipment is handmade, including the whittled pegs that hold his pieces in place on the bench while he works on them. His hand tools are at the ready to work on the fallen and wind blown wood he has collected or foraged from his local nature reserve.
We celebrated the opportunity to meet with Azra and Alex, to learn about their influences and to understand more about the importance of traditional crafts in a fast paced, contemporary world.
Together, they embrace the present and enjoy the unhurried process of making, just as much as the final piece.
Azra: Have you always been creative?
Azra studied for a fashion and textiles degree and always maintained her interest in textiles and designing. She had a career outside of the creative industry and went on to have her three children but all the while, ‘I was printing, designing, making, experimenting and having fun’. Eventually, Azra took the decision to turn her skills and knowledge into a full time career. Now she has the opportunity to draw upon all her inspirations and transpose her ideas and creativity into contemporary, clean, striking designs.
Azra: What comes first? Colour or pattern?
‘Always the pattern.’ Azra draws all of her designs, by hand, gaining inspiration from plants, architecture and nature. However, she does not limit herself and ‘can equally be inspired by a piece of architecture or a seed pod.’
Azra has a beautiful, complementary body of work with each design capable of being a standalone piece but also grouped together, as the tonal, often earthy pigments work well with other designs in her range. Her designs may have two, three or four layers of texture reflected in the individual printing layers. Each layer provides a level of detail, drawing the eye in. Her designs are beautiful both up close and viewed from a distance.
Her ‘Flight’ design ‘was originally inspired by starling murmurations and developed from there. The birds got bigger and I wanted to achieve a more abstract design.’ Another design, ‘Safi’ draws on Azra’s Islamic background and her interest in the cultural architecture and pattern. ‘Olive Branch’ originated from an olive tree which used to sit outside her studio window and the form inspired her simple, yet beautiful contemporary design.
Azra has an innate ability to simplify an idea, draw out the abstract from an initial concept and utilise colour and texture to allow each unique piece to tell a story. Each design is considered and intentional.
What process do you use to bring your designs to life?
One of Azra’s studio walls is her ‘inspiration wall’ where she trials out colour combinations, composition and scale. She talked us through the journey of her ‘Circles’ pattern and how the scale, composition and form were altered and amended to allow for flow, rhythm and texture.
Azra’s decisions to have solid colour or a mere hint of the design are all considered and certainly reflect in the textural and tonal qualities of her final pieces.
All ‘designs are first sketched and then turned into hand drawn positives before being exposed on to a screen ready for printing. Every colour that is printed requires a separate screen.’
Azra only uses environmentally friendly inks that are solvent free and Soil Association Approved.‘Each piece is then hand printed on to high quality fabrics in carefully selected colour combinations which are mixed in the studio.’
‘No two hand printed items are ever the same.’ Azra enjoys and celebrates the uniqueness of each of her pieces and slight variations in the overlapping of colours ‘add character and sets them aside from those that are digitally printed.’
Alex: How did you start your journey with wood?
At an early age, Alex realised that he belonged outside. In nature; respecting the delicate ecology of the land. You could argue that it was his calling. His wanderings and meandering path led him to learn from and work with some of the UK’s leading master craftsmen working with green and native woods. His dedication to his craft and ability to hone his incredible skills are inspirational. He has an ability to produce something that is truly unique, beautiful and tactile. A sculptural piece from Alex will last a lifetime but will tell two tales; the tree from which it was borne and a reflection of the skills and dedication that Alex brings to his craftsmanship.
Originally from Lincolnshire, a teenage Alex visited Whitchurch conservation in South Wales and participated in a variety of rural practises including woodland management, tree planting and creating and repairing countryside footpaths. It was here where he realised he belonged in the outdoors and developed a respect for the land.
Alex chose to stay in Wales and became a yurt dweller; ‘a nomadic tent made from steam bent wood and canvas, heated by a small wood burning stove. I cooked all my meals on an open fire. Around this time, I met and was offered an apprenticeship with greenwood furniture master craftsman, Hugh Roberts who worked with fresh, recently fallen wood. Hugh made furniture with handmade tools and offered courses attended by people from all over the world. When I first joined Hugh, I couldn’t even hammer a nail in straight! During the Winter months, I would coppice wood, attend [countryside] shows and assist in [woodworking] demonstrations.’Under the tuition of Hugh, Alex began to hone his craft and skills. He persevered and became fascinated by ‘green wood which slices like butter.’
Alex went on to work with various makers including renowned yurt maker, Hal Wynne Jones and large outdoor furniture pieces that were sold in Italy. Throughout his meanderings, he developed his own, intuitive and sensitive way of working.
Alex: How do you decide on the overall design for a sculptural piece?
‘The wood dictates the final piece; I have to work with the grain. At the moment, I am enjoying creating lots of obelisk shapes.'
Alex: What is your making process?
First, Alex will decide on which wood he will work on. He doesn’t have a preferred wood, citing ‘green oak, ash, sycamore, cherry and damson’ as some of his favourites. He uses ancient methods with a selection of hand tools, including axes, carving gauges and drawing knives, some of which have survived from his apprenticeship, over 20 years ago and are ‘an extension of my hand.’
After splitting a log along the grain into 2 halves, using a froe and handmade mallet, he will then be guided by the natural forms of the wood and work the wood into bowls or sculptural pieces. He will then cut, gauge and chisel away the unwanted wood to leave a piece that is inherently beautiful and tactile. Alex also uses earth pigments to highlight certain areas of his work or burns the upper surface of the wood to charcoal the area and provide depth. Yet, closer inspection allows you to see and feel Alex’s use of ancient methodologies and mark makings. Look closer still and you gain a sense of the years and years of sheer perseverance, desire to create and the honing of a craft to utter perfection.
Alex: What does the future hold for your wood carving?
‘I am trying to build up a body of work and I have lots of ideas for new pieces.’ Alex is currently working on the concept of all things circular as they remind him of ‘birds building nests and looking up at the circular hole in the top of my yurt.’
Alex is hopeful that his work will become accessible to more people and ‘perhaps doing a piece for a public space would be lovely.’
Alex is a great example of somebody who has put his mind, body and soul into a craft. He has followed a path, seized opportunities along the way and has become highly attuned and at one with the material he works with.