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Joe Hogan: A Way With Willow

From his workshop by Loch na Fooey, Irish maker Joe Hogan creates extraordinary baskets. As a new show at the Scottish Gallery opens, he speaks to Teleri Lloyd-Jones

Sitting in Joe Hogan’s kitchen, we have an improvised lunch before the interview begins in the afternoon. The bread for our meal was made that morning by Hogan’s wife Dolores, and it is delicious. When the day is over and I’m alone in the cottage where Hogan’s basketry students stay, I watch a short film made in 1980 about the basket-maker, his family and their life in this rural part of western Ireland. Among their toddlers and bell bottoms, the film also catches Dolores making a traditional loaf that looks a lot like the one I enjoyed for lunch. That was filmed over three decades ago, and, through my urban-tinted glasses, it feels as if change has no part in life by Loch na Fooey.

But that’s not true, because one thing has most definitely changed here. Over the past 30 years Hogan has not only become a distinguished practitioner and documenter of basket-making traditions, but more recently a maker of non-functional work – beautiful basketry for basketry’s sake. It is this work, both traditional and contemporary, that will be on show in Woven Wild, Hogan’s second solo show at Edinburgh’s Scottish Gallery this May.

Bog Myrtle Bowl, Joe Hogan, 2006. Image courtesy of the artist

In 1978, Joe Hogan made an important decision. After a masters in philosophy at Galway, he and his wife Dolores moved to Loch na Fooey. Put simply, he wanted to live in the countryside, and he wanted to speak Irish. Newly interested in basket-making, he began to see it as a way to turn a rural setting into an advantage, and started looking for somewhere he could grow his own willows and put down metaphorical roots.

With flashes of The Good Life coming to mind, I wonder did Hogan have countercultural, subversive ideas propelling him towards this new life? ‘Not so much subversive, no,’ he says of his venture, and continues with a small smile: ‘But it didn’t look like something that would work out well. It’s a question of finding work that’s ful-filling, that’s one of the most important things in life. It’s underrated. You have to have a sense that it might be the right thing to do, even though it doesn’t seem sensible.’

Unable to secure an apprenticeship, Hogan taught himself, making a point of hunting out as many fellow basket-makers as he could find. Living in Loch na Fooey, he met neighbour Tommy Joyce, who taught him how to make a donkey creel, interesting to Hogan because it was made upside down (a technique that continues to inform his recent artistic work). ‘When Tommy showed me how to make that basket,’ recalls Hogan, ‘he was convinced this was the creel, but I began to learn that there are other creels, with different variations and styles. I got interested in that and realised that in 10 years they’ll all be gone.’ There was plenty to learn about life as a rural basket-maker, and Hogan spent much of the first decade of his practice documenting and learning the Irish traditions.

Basketry-making skills are, as he explains to me, often initially invisible to outsiders, but each rural community in Ireland would have someone who could make and repair functional baskets. This is the tradition that Hogan felt compelled to trace, by learning the ways of making, and recording the different traditions – whelk or lobster pots, creels and skibs and their local varieties.

Earth and Sky, Joe Hogan, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist

The importance of difference and diversity is a subject that we return to in our conversation. Asked about national identity within objects, Hogan replies: ‘I think culture is important. I have a big distrust of nationalism. I think we could preserve cultural identity without it becoming trapped up in other things. Difference is a very important thing in life, for everyone to not be submerged into a homogeneity. I feel that happens in modern culture, it’s almost intolerant of difference, and that is its loss.’ The myopia of monoculture is also avoided in his willows, the advantage of growing one’s own being the opportunity to experiment with different types and colours.

As a younger man, Hogan’s interests weren’t ecological, but with experience he’s become more concerned about the relationship between nature and the modern world. Living beside the loch he sees the passing of the seasons and the changing of light throughout the day, and he spends some of his time working the land and walking the hills that he now knows so well. Hogan says he would like us to ‘reconsider ourselves as part of nature… To go out and look again, more deeply, more closely. Managing to do with less might be part of the solution.’

The relationship between craftspeople and nature is often close, but for basketry the link is simple and direct; using material cut from the ground, dried, soaked, then manipulated by hand. Hogan explains the most unforgiveable thing in basketry is to ‘kink your rod’; in essence one must leave no trace of force, as if in the best baskets nature somehow colludes with the maker. To use strength but not force, to create that sense of ease within the work, is one of the most difficult things to teach: ‘It’s almost as though you begin to learn from the rod. It’s not a dead material, it’s very alive.’

Joe Hogan in his studio
His practice also explicitly expresses the central importance of repetition within craftwork – at one point in our conversation he motions to a potato skib in the corner, saying that he must have made a thousand in his lifetime. Those many hours form the foundations of his contemporary work. ‘I like the fact that now if I try to do something in willow, I can get the material to do what I want it to do,’ says Hogan.

Even in other materials, those years of handling helps. I like that competency. I feel that’s underplayed in the crafts world… My ideal work feeling now is that I am almost a hollow thing through which the idea is being expressed. I’ve always found it absorbing.

In 2001, he finished Basketmaking in Ireland, the culmination of his research, its publication offering a natural pause for a change in direction. His children were grown by this time, and his wife was working, so the practical pressures that had often affected his work were now eased, allowing a little time to experiment. The resulting pieces were non-functional basketry, combining his homegrown willow with more varied materials, from bogwood openings to lichen-encrusted birch. Instead of stemming from a traditional archetype, these pieces are inspired by Hogan’s own discovery of natural materials.

Finding bogwood on his walks around the area, he was struck by the notion to incorporate wood within his baskets. Some pieces suggest birds’ nests, whirligigs of branches; others swell and bulge from mouths of wood. In con-trast to the prescriptive feel of the functional work, each seems constructed in an intuitive way.

He began making them as a way to get closer to nature: ‘I was enjoying my work, but I wasn’t expressing my feeling as I could.’ Always the first to point out some inconsistency in his own practice, Hogan explains these pieces require the wood to be drilled so that the willow can be secured to them – so a series of work that brought him closer to nature ironically also saw him using more tools than ever before, where previously he’d relied on his hands alone. Growing the willows, preparing and then weaving them by hand: the self-reliant nature of basket-making is one that appeals to him. But alongside his great love of all things natural, he draws on poetry and prose: from Seamus Heaney to Anne Michaels, with Rainer Maria Rilke ever-present.

Bulbous larch vessel with lichen, Joe Hogan. Image courtesy of the artist

Notably, he doesn’t like to think of his artistic baskets as commercial work, and talks about them somewhat distantly, as though under inspection they run the risk of tarnish. Quite understandably, Hogan protects life and practise here, handles the latter delicately, removing it from any consciously commercial approach. After all, his move here in 1978 was not a commercial decision – so why start now? In most interviews, it feels natural to be sitting in the maker’s studio with materials and work to hand as you talk. With Hogan, we talked in his living room – though of course we were facing the most extraordinary view across the loch. On days when he’s not making, the basket-maker prefers not to be in his workshop, suggesting that he thinks of his making space as precious, and unspoilt by other parts of life.

All the same, it’s not quite right to view his artistic baskets as entirely separate from his traditional ones. He continues to make both styles, and he could never have produced the work he makes now without the repetitive years of skill-building that went into the traditional baskets. Reproduction and repetition are the bedrock of his skill, and he’s keen for me to understand that these things take time. The baskets that he makes today are the culmination of three decades of work.

Hogan’s influence as a maker has been cemented over recent years by his teaching. In the mid-80s a man appeared at Hogan’s door wanting to learn about basketry: ‘I shouldn’t have been surprised, because, after all, I wanted to do that myself when I was learning, but I wouldn’t have had the idea to teach.’ He placed an advertisement in Common Ground magazine and the workshops began. Now the ten weeks of the year he spends teaching at his home provides a steady income, as well as enforced sociability for a maker who enjoys the solitary nature of his work. But it also offers moments of reflection: ‘You ask yourself a little bit more why, why you do something in a particular way.’ And it has found its most interesting expression in his own son Ciaran, who is also now a basket-maker.

And here lies one of the beauties of Hogan’s practice. Like the best of crafted things, it contains both the traditional and innovative, looking simultaneously to the past and the future. ‘From the outside, traditional work can look very static, but the closer you get, the more you realise that it’s experimental, a good deal of it. It’s not handed down as a static thing; sometimes tradition even degenerates. In this area, you could see that it was in a period of decay, and you revive it by looking back at older work. It only looks like repetition. There’s this idea that when you’re reproducing, nothing new is happening, and I’m not convinced of that.’

For a decision that, in his own words, ‘didn’t look like something that would work out well’ Hogan’s move to Loch na Fooey and his taking up of basket-making has come good. Hogan has made his roots in a place that most of its inhabitants were born in and never leave, and he continues to find inspiration on his doorstep. ‘Over a period of time living here, I have also developed a strong sense of belonging,’ the basket-maker wrote in 2011, ‘and this, I feel, is somehow reflected in my work.’ Sounds like a good life to me.

Woven Wild shows at the Scottish Gallery, 16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HZ, from 3-31 May 2014.