THIS IS AN ARTICLE ABOUT ME IN THE STYLE OF THE GUARDIAN'S "A DAY IN THE LIFE'.
IT WAS PRODUCED BY HANNAH BASS AS PART OF HER DEGREE COURSE IN JOURNALISM IN NOV 2011.
“The trick is to remove everything that isn’t dog.”
Right. I stare dumbly from my block of wood to the perky Collie that Mick Waterhouse is bringing to life. With a sharp, crescent-ended gauge he cuts into the wood which curls away delicately. “There you go,” he says, “there’s that satisfying crunch.”
Waterhouse, 60, has been carving wood for over 25 years. He has, he says, always had “an urge to make things” and even in his earlier life as a welder and builder he worked with his hands. His hands now tap deftly with a mallet at gauges which dance across the dull surface of the wood to reveal a deep shine beneath.
The sculptures start life as an anonymous block of wood stacked up like fire fodder. A crude silhouette is cut with a band saw, the only electrical piece of equipment in Waterhouse’s studio. Gauges, the “workhorses” which festoon the studio walls, are used to carve in featherlike layers until the final details can be cut with sharp tools called spoons and fishtails.
The finished pieces shimmer and prickle with tool marks. Waterhouse says he doesn’t like sandpapered finishes: “You lose all the marks that you’ve put into the wood, all the creativity.”
Sculptures crowd the walls of Waterhouse’s studio, a wooden gingerbread hut that he built himself in the vegetable garden of his half-timbered cottage in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Bristling barley fields and bounding hares hang next to vines dripping with wooden grapes. One image looms from every corner of the room: the face of the green man.
The green man is a pagan image to which Waterhouse has obsessively returned throughout his career, a bearded face half-formed from leaves. “I’m interested in how man fits into the natural world,” says Waterhouse, taking a green man down from the wall. “Nature is far more powerful than we are and yet we tinker and mess about with it and manipulate and mess it up. We live in a world that can very easily destroy us or that we can very easily destroy. Where do we fit in without doing too much damage?”
Waterhouse’s work and lifestyle are his own quiet answers this question. “We’re not consumers,” he says when I ask him about life with his partner Viv. “We live simply and frugally, off relatively little income. It’s a way of living that feels sensible to me.”
Outdoorsy since childhood, Waterhouse was always drawn to nature and, in particular, to working with wood but it was only after leaving his wife 25 years ago that he had the “headspace” to leave his job in industry and learn to carve. “Grinding and welding metal was a dirty job,” he says. “After that, I found wood felt refreshingly clean and sustainable.”
He started with an evening class in his nearest town, Leighton Buzzard, and moved on to an Open College sculpture course. He set up a studio in his cottage and began tentatively to exhibit. There is a shyness to Waterhouse that is at odds with his confident craftsmanship.
He says: “I always felt that because I had no qualifications on paper, I was in a league below people who were formally educated and were showing in galleries. It didn’t matter that I could actually produce something that was good; I lacked that confidence.”
That lack of confidence is still there, he says, “lurking in the back of my mind”. Now he prefers to show in his own studio, where he is able to meet customers and talk about his craft.
Talking shop seems to come more naturally to Waterhouse and that’s perhaps why he has ended up balancing his creative work with teaching. He trained for an adult teaching qualification and soon found himself leading the Leighton Buzzard class where he had first learned to carve.
Many of Waterhouse’s students are retired hobbyists but he has also taught youngsters who are now studying furniture design or have set up their own studios. He is currently working with adults with learning difficulties and speaks fondly of a young man who, he says, has difficulty communicating through speech but “has a wonderful eye for design and knows exactly what he wants to create.”
Having a steady income from teaching is now a necessity for Waterhouse’s creative work. He says: “If you’re depending on selling, what you make is very different than when you’re free to make what you want.”
Despite that, he now works on a trickle of commissions. When I arrive he’s carving a Liver bird for a Liverpool FC fan. The studio is also scattered with nesting hens for a commission he’s developing. “It’s funny,” he muses, “you think you know what a hen looks like until you start drawing and studying pictures and looking and looking and looking...”
Discipline is vital. Waterhouse teaches full days on Monday and Tuesday and spends at least six hours daily in the studio the rest of the week. “If I’m really fired up I’ll come back in the evenings and on the weekends,” he says. “It still feels different at the weekend. I’m somehow more relaxed and more creative.”
“I’ve fiddled myself into a very nice lifestyle being able to do something I love and live off the proceeds. Sometimes I forget that. Then I stop and think that some people have to go to the same seat at the same desk, year in, year out.”
As I leave to go back to my desk, Waterhouse is starting work on another green man. Hidden beneath a beard of leaves is the face of French rugby player Sébastien Chabal. Another of Waterhouse’s little jokes that help breathe life back into the wood.
Pay: The rate for Adult Education teaching is £20 an hour. The average commissioned sculpture sells for about £500.
Hours: Waterhouse teaches 18 hours a week and tries to spend at least six hours a day in the studio.
Best thing: “Making a customer happy. The ultimate affirmation of your work is someone else liking it enough to buy it.”
Worst thing: “Days when you feel like you’ve run out of ideas. That awful feeling that comedians and actors talk about, that one day you’re going to be found out and someone will say, ‘Aha, Mick! Your day has come, it’s all been a joke!’”