Carving Out a Fairer, Sustainable Future
Anne Mathison is the carver and creator of Mithlond Spoons, available in store and online at The Longship.
Anne lives in Birsay, Orkney where she works as a mental health officer and social worker. When she’s not hard at work you will find her roaming the beaches of Orkney in search of wood to carve into beautiful objects for your home. We had a chat with her to find out more about her craft and her ethos of striving for a more self sufficient, sustainable way of life.
What inspires you?
Too much to tell..... probably everything. I have a tattoo on my arm that says ‘Works with her hands,’ it is the name of a character in one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The person is a woodcarver.
Where did you learn the craft of wood carving?
I taught myself. In 2014 I had this idea that I would like to make a spoon - so I bought a cheap set of starter chisels and had a go.
The first spoons that I made were very strange. And my only source of wood was what I found washed up on the beaches. That first winter in 2014 was a really good one for washed up wood - I haven’t had another so good! I think the currents may have changed out there in the Atlantic.
When sourcing the wood along the shore what is it exactly you’re looking for?
The wood needs to be close grained. Huge pieces of pine that are washed up won’t do: I like smaller branches of slower growing wood. It probably comes across the ocean from Canada.
But it’s pot luck really. It all depends on what the sea brings in. My best finds are mostly in winter as it is the big storms that wash stuff ashore. Occasionally I have enjoyed pieces of wood coming off ships wrecked out there somewhere - bits of tropical hardwood or very old oak with holes and ancient nails in them.
Where else do you get your wood from?
Last year I bought a load of broken up whisky barrel staves. Once I have cleaned off most of the internal charred wood they make lovely spoons and the smell when carving them is delicious. People who know me also drop things off at my back gate! One year a friend gave me a load of old fenceposts for the stove. Amongst them were some oak posts that I used to make spoons with. Another friend gave me 2000/3000 year old timber from an ancient crannog in Loch Tay.
How do you see your spoons - are they art objects for admiring or utensils for practical use?
They are both - but that depends on the person whose hands they are in. I have friends who use them for cooking and they go in the dishwasher. Other folk will never use them - they are collectables.
Do you make any other objects aside from spoons?
Bangles, pendants, rings, oh and I make zombie apocalypse hair spoons! These are long, slender handled spoons with a sharp point. They keep your hair up and should the zombies come (or vampires, I suppose) you are armed and ready.
When you’re not sourcing and carving wood what do you do to pass the time?
I love books. I have lived my life in books since I was a small child. These days I listen to audio books - mostly science fiction and fantasy. I’m a true Tolkien enthusiast! I am also a servant to a bunch of cats and a large, fluffy dog.
How have you found lockdown? Has it changed the way you think creatively and in a wider sense about the world around you?
It hasn’t made much difference to me - I still go to work, see my family from far away and walk without meeting anyone. I have often thought that we need to be more self-sufficient and that we need to be much more careful about not squandering the resources available to us. I suppose that is easy for me to say - being a relatively well off person living in a very well off country. We need to share our comforts with those who have less and abolish hoarding of wealth, whatever form it takes.
Why wood carving?
I enjoy working with my hands, the smell of the wood and the way it keeps me busy; especially in the winter when the weather is too bad to be out walking or gardening.
I like the mantra ‘waste not, want not.’ I think we should all try and re-use and try to make what we need. Pretty much all of my ‘new’ clothes come from charity shops - but sometimes they need to be re-sized or re-fashioned.
I think we are only a small distance away from our ancient ancestors who made everything they needed: I think that is why I find wood carving so satisfying to do.
We live in a society that has grown used to high consumption and high waste. Anne Mathison rejects this throwaway culture. She is an inspiration for all of us to do our bit, in whatever way that is, to reduce waste and live in a more sustainable way. It’s impossible to do everything, but small changes can gradually create change.
Like Anne’s generous friends who leave wood they've found on her doorstep, we too should donate the things we’ve outgrown, keeping only the items we love. I’m in the category of owners of Anne’s spoons that views them as ‘collectables’ and I cherish the story each object contains. Each one of Anne’s spoons has a unique story, from its origin in a boat wreck or transatlantic forest, to the Birsay beach where it was washed ashore. Instead of buying in to mass market products we should seek to support craftspeople like Anne. In this way they can continue to create and tell their stories, and we can go on to create a new story of our own as the piece becomes a part of our home.
Mithlond Spoons - from £18
Interview by Cara McLean