Josephine Jelicich has always enjoyed building things with her hands, even if, by her own admission, she wasn’t always so adept at it. “I was a quiet kid who mostly loved drawing and making, and at one point I really remember wanting to be a cartoonist,” she says. “At art school I always felt frustrated about not being able to make something that was functional and strong. Being in a workshop environment made me want to become skilled at something practical, and I stumbled upon the Centre for Fine Woodworking in Nelson. It was a dream to be able to go to this school, learn so intensively and become part of a new world.”
The artist and furniture maker is already starting to make her mark on that world having bagged the 2018 Mayor’s Award for her table, Pipi, crafted from native beech. I ask if she has a favourite wood to work with.
“There are so many! At the centre last year, I tried to use whatever was around—they have a great stock room with donated and locally milled pieces—and there were so many beautiful variations in these unique woods. Tawhairanui (red beech) was my favourite. Tawhai (silver beech) is a simple but strong wood, with a shimmer and some surprises like pink, purple and silver throughout. The nicest to work with was probably American cherry—it’s well-known for its easy-to-work-with properties.”
I ask about sustainable practices within the industry and Josephine says that it’s at the forefront of most woodworkers’ minds. “A lot of people want pieces fashioned from American oak or ash, which is imported, so not so sustainable in terms of air miles,” says Josephine. “But furniture makers are usually working on a pretty small scale, which does make it easier to be more careful. Many will build collections of wood from friends that fell trees, or need one chopped down. Most people don’t realise the beauty or value of some trees’ timber and may for example remove a black walnut tree and cut it up for firewood—but it’s about $200 a plank!”
Josephine says that she is attracted by the uniqueness of each plank of wood, intrigued by the surprises that it holds. She loves watching the wood evolve from “an unrecognisable, oxidised raw plank, to a finished, functional thing” taking in each of the stages in between, “getting to know the wood” as it is squared, and then milled. The whole woodworking process, she adds, can be meditative, taking the time to sharpen chisels and planes is “both calming and satisfying”.
“It takes a great deal of patience to complete a project, and there have definitely been times when I have felt like giving up,” admits Josephine. “You can’t rush too much because one mistake can set you back days. With practice, mistakes don’t just become easier to deal with, but a fun problem-solving exercise. Things such as hand-shaping and cutting dovetails I find meditative, all you are thinking about is where the chisel is going, and following the steps in your head.”
In terms of profit, Josephine laments that it’s “outrageous” how long some pieces take to make, with something as seemingly simple as a desk stretching over two months—and that’s “working on it full time in a school environment with expert teachers and the best machines”.
“Every element of the things I have made have been done entirely by hand, and carefully thought about,” she reveals. “I would like to design and make some items that are more affordable, so figuring out a way to make the process quicker is important.”
Moving forward, she wishes to take the time to build her confidence and experience, eventually establishing her own workshop where she can help friends and others learn: “I would love to have the time to make beautiful things for people close to me.”
Speaking of which, Josephine has an upcoming collaborative show at Precinct 35 in Wellington with her partner, painter Yvette Vlevin (“instead of ‘art’ I will make furniture and other woodwork objects, it’s exciting to be able to experiment with what I’ve learnt”) and plans to teach a course at community workshop The Warren, here in Auckland.
“Next year, I hope to return to the Centre for Fine Woodworking for the Michael Fortune Open Studio Programme,” she adds, “so wish me luck for the scholarship!”