“I think there’s going to be a craft revolution. When everything’s stripped away, people still want to make. Making is productive, it’s healing, it’s so many things.”
Based in East Sussex, Annemarie O'Sullivan makes contemporary baskets using ancient British basket-making techniques. She grows around 20 varieties of willow, which she harvests by hand on a half-acre plot near her home. Working from a wooden studio in her garden, Annemarie creates both small-scale domestic objects and larger woven sculptures. Her baskets have been featured in The New York Times, The Irish Times, House and Garden and Country Living.
Photo credit: Annemarie O'Sullivan @Asia Werbel
Tell us about your work and practice.
I started basket-making when I was about 30 and completely fell in love with it. I was working in education in an alternative primary school, doing lots of work outdoors and just realizing how good life was when you were connected with nature. I found a basket-making course, and felt absolutely compelled.
On that first day I was making, I remember falling asleep and feeling like I was in this kind of drift, making these strokes like just the rhythm of basket-making. As a child, in my younger years, I used to swim, and I swam all the time. And when I started making baskets I had this immediate visceral feeling, like I was remembering doing something and it was what I was supposed to do. So from that very first day it felt like it was completely deep inside me.
I didn't think I could make a career of this, I just loved basket-making. I didn't realize it could become my life - it took quite a while to get there. I did 5 years of training and at one point, relatively early on, I got a large order from a place in San Francisco and realized it could add up to making a living. At that point my husband then came to work with me as well - we work full time together, very much a team now. At the moment, my product has become a very luxury product, because it takes so many hours to make - growing the reeds, harvesting them and seeing the whole process through.
I think the projection of the life of a basket-maker is that it must be very gentle, we all present these beautiful photographs of our life and our lifestyle. But the bottom line for us is that we work really hard, physically really hard, and that doesn’t always feel sustainable. Also, in my case, I’m making baskets which have a negative carbon footprint, but quite often they’re being bought in America and they’re going on a plane. And I’m really trying to work out the most sustainable way to work for the planet. I’m also very interested in training other people and in skill-sharing. Sustainability is the highest item on my agenda for the future, my personal future, and the future of my business.
What are the main challenges in your work?
My physical well-being is a challenge. I can’t work for 10 hours every day, my body will be broken. Many people experience this difficulty if they are a maker and are doing repetitive work. Every morning I do an hour of yoga before I start making, and this isn’t a luxury, this is essential, because I’m all the time bent over. Two years ago I developed a trapped nerve in my shoulder from my postural working, and I couldn't work for three months. I'm now managing that all the time. For me, now, the focus is on engaging and shifting the way I work and having really strong connections with people and with materials.
How do you think international collaboration will impact your craft / your work?
I'm really interested in the heritage of rural craft, and I think the way politics and geography influence a craft is really interesting. I was doing some work in Poland last year, where there was a real division between the industrialized basket-making organized by the former Communist Regime and the rough farm baskets made by peasants. I don’t think anything like that has happened here in the UK or in Ireland (I’m Irish, although I live in England).
There is a lot to unearth and to see in communities, in cities and the countryside, that is influenced by politics, geography, materials that are there, skills that are available, skills that are easily shared between people.
In Britain at the moment it’s very hard to find people to learn from. Basket-makers have disappeared, there are very few left, and for me it is a rich experience to go to a place where there are still rural basket-makers, because they will have traditions, little movements and little ways of preparing that are specific to that village, that 20 miles away are completely different. For me, it feels like a voyage of discovery and sharing.
Have you learned anything surprising about Romanian? (What?)
I feel like the work in Romania was really strong and maybe a little bit more conceptual than what I see in Britain. Less traditional, more conceptual - that's what I've seen and what comes across really beautifully. It made me really think about myself, think maybe I’m too traditional for this. Which I think is because we all go to our little vulnerabilities. I was really impressed.
How do you see the future of (your) craft in a post Covid-19 world?
The Artist Support Pledge has been rolling on Instagram in the UK, and it’s an initiative that enables money and goods to move around. I haven’t been part of that but I’ve done swaps with people - I made a new laundry basket for a good ceramicist friend, and she made me six cups. I think it would be a very good thing for this sort of transaction to take the place of some of the more traditional ones. Obviously, we all need money in our bank to pay our rent or our mortgage, but cooperation is also a very good idea. Valuing our objects, in my case holding that cup and remembering its story, creates good mental habits and a feeling of abundance, instead of a feeling that you don’t have enough. It’s a very good pattern.
I feel like craft is going to be really strong in the future. I think it’s going to be a craft revolution. When everything’s stripped away, people still want to make. Making is productive, it’s healing, it’s so many things.
We are at a time when things need to be flipped. But I think we all have the power, in our small bubbles and our small groups, to make some great shifts towards a better economy, towards a really different economy than the one that we’ve known and we’ve existed in so far. I’m actually more hopeful for the future from this point of view. My focus is on cooperation, circular economies and thinking in a really systemic way about all the aspects of the work that we do. And if we all do a little bit, it will add up.
What advice would you give other craft practitioners who are trying to adapt during this time?
Keep making what you love making and allow your work to move. Don’t give your work away, but swap it, if money is not coming in, keep it moving, so you have a fresh outlook and a reason to make.
It’s also good to make lots of connections with other makers and to be able to talk through everything, because making can be a very isolated thing, when you’re following one little path on your own and doing repetitive work.
And remember, the craft revolution is coming. For sure!
Crafting Futures is a global British Council programme building a positive future by unlocking craft’s unique potential to inspire people around the globe. The programme celebrates the value of craft in our history, culture and world today.
Through making and international collaboration, Crafting Futures brings together craft practitioners, designers and organisations from around the world to explore possibilities for this future together.
Launched in Romania in 2020, Crafting Futures brings together six craft professionals from the United Kingdom and organisations, designers, artists and craftivists in Romania, aiming to support the development of shared learning and traditional, sustainable craft and design practice.