The words ‘delicate’ and ‘wood’ wouldn’t normally appear in the same sentence, but craftsman Richard Kennedy proves that the stuff of furniture and fruit bowls can also be art. He talks to Sarah Millington

AS a boy, Richard Kennedy wasn’t especially good at art. He didn’t study it at school and, after leaving, he embarked on a business and marketing degree, thinking he would pursue a career along these lines. Then a chance conversation in a pub led to him helping to build a house and, within a relatively short space of time, Richard changed course to become a wood turner.

“We decided that we were going to get a cottage to renovate in Scotland and that became quite a difficult task, so we ended up being talked into buying a field,” says the 41-year-old, who lives in Durham. “My father and I built the house and whilst doing it, I thought, ‘actually, I really enjoy working with my hands’. From that I thought about a bit of a change in direction.”

Richard and his father built their house, in Argyll, more than ten years ago, and since then, Richard has become increasingly well known as a wood artist. He was recently named maker of the year by Craft & Design Magazine – the second time he has received the honour – and his work now sells as far afield as the US and Dubai.

Admired for their delicacy, Richard’s pieces are inspired by the wood itself and are purely ornamental. He was influenced by an American trend of the 1960s and 1970s. “Originally, wood turning was about making functional items like chair legs, table legs and bannister spindles, but there were about four guys who started looking at it from a more artistic point of view,” says Richard. “They started the modern wood art movement.”

While some of the techniques have been around for centuries, Richard has adapted them to his own unique style. An early role model was Brighton-based wood turner Bert Marsh. “He used to make very fine, thin-walled bowls. I really admired his work,” he says. “I started making very thin bowls and people would look at them and say, ‘That looks like a Bert Marsh bowl’, so I started playing around with what I could do with the surface and started to pierce them.”

This became a trademark, and Richard is now renowned for his smooth, sculpted pieces punctured with hundreds of tiny holes. Making them is onerous and requires the right frame of mind. “There aren’t many people who do this kind of work,” he says. “There aren’t many wood artists who work to this kind of tolerance.

“The big ones – the really intricately pierced ones – take a very long time. Before I start on a morning I’ve got to do deep breathing. You have to slow yourself down completely. I tend to have a scrap piece of wood that I might do ten to 15 minutes’ piercing on first to regulate my hand so, hopefully, when you look at a piece you can’t see where I started and stopped. If there’s anything that’s going on in life that’s stressful, it doesn’t happen.”

With the help of his mother Trish, an art enthusiast whom Richard credits with his own interest, he runs a gallery near the family home in Argyll. Dividing his time between Durham and Scotland, Richard has his main workshop in the remote Scottish region, where he performs demonstrations and chats to visitors. “I like getting out and talking to people,” he says. “I spend so much time on my own. I just like to talk and talk and talk.”

When back in Durham, Richard frequents local wood turning clubs, where he picks up tips from often elderly craftsmen who are more than happy to share their knowledge. There’s also a wider internet community to which he belongs.

“When I started doing the wood turning, quite quickly I got on the internet and started to talk to people,” he says. “I realised that there are a lot of friendly and helpful people out there who are willing to help you. I would like to see more people doing it. If someone else makes a tree bowl – great. For me, going forward, I would like to highlight what you can actually do with a piece of wood and enable people to start viewing it as they would a vase or a piece of glass.”

Never happy simply to replicate pieces, Richard is always looking for new challenges and different ways of fashioning wood. This has led to him adopting some unusual implements. “Every piece goes on the lathe and is turned, then I use a variety of different chisels and gouges to create the shape I want,” he says. “When I started doing the piercing, there wasn’t a machine to do it so I started using a beautician’s device for polishing nails.

“Because I’m trying to push the boundaries a little bit, sometimes I come across a problem and think I need a tool that does a certain job, so I have to adapt something. I actually have a dentist’s tool now.”

It’s taken a little more than a decade, but Richard is delighted that he’s finally being recognised for his niche artworks. Next, he’d like to further explore the American market, which is generally receptive to wood art. Having achieved a level of success, he hopes to be able to continue doing what he loves.

“Every time I finish something, I try to improve on it,” he says. “It’s a lovely learning experience. I get up on a morning, I look at the wood and think, ‘I’ll try that today’. What the next piece will be I never know – I’ll look at a piece of wood and it will say, ‘I want to be something’, and I’ll just start. I enjoy doing this and I would like to be able to maintain it and keep doing it. It’s a lovely way of life.”