Well established, South London-based, award-winning wood sculptor Jeff Soan is in his sixties and specialises in making articulated wooden creatures.
Ambivalence about Money
It’s so different talking to an established craftsman there is a gentleness and content which someone driving a younger business lacks. The money worries become a habit, it’s a sort of pipe and slippers sort of worry
“I guess I worry less about the money now, I like a bit of insecurity”
Jeff’s attitude to money is ambivalent, he has a very full order book but as the recession stories took to the headlines he admits to contemplating what useful objects he could make
” I really thought my sales would fall away, everybody would be belt-tightening”
It didn’t work out like that. He thinks that’s down to an ever-widening net, the more people buy his pieces, the more people come across them and want one themselves. His customers have become his salesmen.
“At the moment its the seal that is keeping my business going. I sell about one a week. “
When the seal first emerged in about 1990 it was priced at £75 now it costs £300 but in galleries it costs much more.
“I raised the price every time I sold one, I went over £300 but I bought it back down as I was not comfortable going higher”
When I push him on why he is not comfortable, he can’t really explain
“The seal has sold for £600 in some galleries but in my dusty shed £300 is enough”
he tried to say something about making it affordable but as he offers Jeff Credit, his answer to art credit arrangements the galleries use such as Own Art it’s not really an answer.
Artist or Craftsman?
Like many craftsmen he is resistant to the concept of being an artist and charging art prices. He feels that he wouldn’t be able to keep creating something new
“I am very self-aware and I know where I fail. I am not really an artist, this is repeatable work .”
This is no argument as plenty of artists make their living from prints of their work.
Jeff also claims to be a “wood butcher” He shows me some slithers of wood of varying thicknesses as proof of his imperfect technique, he insists his long time assistant Julia is far more proficient. But actually that proves he is more artist than craftsman. Also he is fussy. He talked of abandoning this Otter as his eyes were not exactly symmetrical
I said that exact symmetry in humans was deemed beauty and is very rare, so his otter was fine. He said his wife Barbara left the business in the early days over a row between them about the placement of duck eyes. So he’s not that much of a wood butcher if he is so demanding about the finished product.
The argument about not being able to keep inventing new pieces is equally false as recently the Cutty Sark gave him some of the boat’s orignal timbers to work with
And he has already produced two entirely new pieces
An automata of the Cutty Sark rolling the waves
And an articulated sculpture of Captain Woodget’s Collie
It’s not that Jeff doesn’t see where his work could take him, he told me about the One Tree Project where artists made pieces from the wood of a single tree
“Guy Tapin’s wren sold on the phone for £1000 my wren was £50”
Guy Taplin sells out of a Cork street gallery and commands huge prices Jeff says he’s fed up with galleries and is doing more direct shows.
He has even put some pieces on Folksy where he sells everything he lists. It costs 20p an entry and 5% commission
“I get a trickle of income from Folksy, a lovely little extra income that keeps my PayPal topped up”
The Man Who would not Charge More
Well I don’t completely buy any of his explanations, perhaps part of the answer lies in his past
Here he is sitting on the steps of a friend’s house in Ikaria in Greece in 1974, he is a romantic and an idealist, fresh out of Goldsmiths having studied art and design. This is a guy who is going to go his own way. He hated Goldsmiths as he is a practical sort at the height of the non figurative fashion in art schools. He gets married, has a family and supports them by becoming a builder as he had done some skivvying for his mate’s builder dad and he is anti art after Goldsmiths
Jeff is still a romantic, he’s going back to Ikaria, where he was left a little plot of land, with a container full of materials to build himself a rudimentary dwelling incorporating the container into the build.
His Achilles Heel is his desire not to be corralled into any single activity, he is in love with his extra curriculum projects. He has plenty of creativity but he wants to use it to please himself . He is simply not motivated by money. Go to his website, click gallery and it splits to sculpture and “other interests” His conversation is full of projects and creative passions.
On his blog he lists cycling, composting, painting, photography, bookbinding, greenroofing, wood, recycling, house renovation and Ikaria as his interests.
I think it suits him to let his wood sculptures give him enough to live on, as it stands it is a business he can engage and disengage from as he wishes. It was no accident that when he interviewed his book-keeper, the only thing that she could sit on was a full-sized articulated pig. He says he is
“a bit naive when it comes to money, I really don’t know what I make as long as its enough.”
I don’t think he is naive, I think he is choosing how he wants to live and that means not maximizing his income
“I like to flit; computing, chat, work – to always choose the path with the heart”
When Disaster Strikes
Any business hits disaster every so often, but Jeff seems to ride the waves remarkably happily. In November 1996 his garden studio burnt down. The woodburner’s chimney got too hot and set an accumulation of leaves on the roof alight. He says by Christmas he was up and running again. He was given money, tools and temporary premises ” it was a heart warming experience.”
It’s predecessor burnt down the studio
More recently Jeff nearly lost the tendons in his right hand He had the blade saw running and the postman knocked at the studio door with a parcel and the hideous happened. His hand has recovered but he viewed the time off work “as a bit of a holiday” and practised writing with his left hand ” which was actually more legible than my normal writing” He meant to paint a red circle on the floor round the blade saw but he still hasn’t done so.
The hand eating saw
The really terrible disaster “much worse than the fire ” was when he discovered he had to pay VAT hence the hasty arrival of a book-keeper.
Employing an Assistant
Jeff has got working with an assistant down to a fine art. Julia has been working with him since 1991. He pays her a good hourly rate and she comes in at midday. She executes many of his pieces
“I generate it , she produces it. It’s an area I feel a little bit uncomfortable about. Some of the fish I make I haven’t touched until I sign them”
Because she comes in at midday, it means Jeff gets the studio to himself in the mornings and her presence in the afternoons is “companionable” He says she is his quality control
“When I make things I am concerned with the impression and the shaping. She is more careful, points out deficiencies diplomatically ‘Did you want to leave those bandsaw marks’ “
and far better at packing “there is a part of my brain that just wont pack”
He gets around the need to keep her continually supplied with work by ceding the small creature part of the business entirely to her, which he sells alongside his own at shows on her behalf , while she chips in with some of the stand cost. Jeff used to employ two assistants but he found that meant that he was demoted to maintenance man and was constantly in the way.
Picture of Jeff’s office compiled with Microsoft ICE one of his latest passions
Jeff finds he needs to spend 1-2 hours on the computer a morning and then starts in his workshop about 10.30am and finishes around 6 in the evening.
“I do have a wonderful time and I feel well paid and I am doing better now than I have ever done”
Getting to the comfortable place Jeff is now has taken 24 years. In 1987 he was making batch produced wooden penguins which he sold at Greenwich craft market. He’s had good and bad luck, he hasn’t chased money and he has succeeded in living the life he wants to.