Wild Geese: Annemarie O’Sullivan, basket maker and artist

‘I had no business plan, I had no idea that I was going to be able to make a living from it’

Annemarie O’Sullivan lives with her husband and two sons in the Sussex countryside.

Annemarie O’Sullivan lives with her husband and two sons in the Sussex countryside.

 

“The first day of basket making was like going back to swimming,” says Annemarie O’Sullivan. “I had a deep satisfaction with the rhythm and the flow of the work – the stroke of the willow is the same as the stroke of my arm when I am swimming, which makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.”

O’Sullivan left Ireland nearly 30 years ago. The former Irish champion swimmer departed with her brother and some friends shortly after doing her “matric” and didn’t return for 25 years.

As she departed, her father asked her what she was going to do in England. She shrugged off the question. She had little idea that many years later, a moment of epiphany during a basket making course would eventually lead her to earn a living as a basket maker and artist in the Sussex countryside.

The Kells native’s first foray into London was in a two-bedroom house in Hounslow, where, like many other young Irish, 12 of them piled in and took shifts in the beds.

She was offered a place at university in both Dublin and at Loughborough University in England’s East Midlands where she chose to study sports science. She went on to become a primary school teacher and has lived variously in London, in Brighton and in Lewes. She now lives with her husband and two sons in the Sussex countryside.

Travelling frequently

That moment of epiphany 10 years ago has led O’Sullivan to become a renowned basket maker and artist exhibiting large scale works and travelling frequently to collaborate and teach.

“I was going to do it whatever happened – I had no business plan, I had no idea that I was going to be able to make a living from it and now I am showing and selling work internationally, I’ve got a six-month waiting list for my work, I’m employing someone part-time to work on my administration and my husband has just quit his job to become my apprentice,” she says.

O’Sullivan is represented by the New Craftsmen – a highly respected lifestyle concept store in Mayfair – and her work is sought after worldwide with London and the US being key markets for her.

“The key thing is that I could not have done this work at any other time,” she says. “The internet and social media have allowed this to happen. Where I couldn’t get five people from the local town originally to attend my classes, now I have people coming from the likes of Milan to learn with me.”

O’Sullivan’s work day is a varied one as she fulfils orders for her baskets, works on art projects, teaches at City Lit in Covent Garden, teaches private classes both at home and abroad and works collaboratively with other artists and craftspeople.

She is currently working with ceramicist Elaine Bolt on an Arts Council-funded project called Making Ground. The two are using the site of an old brickworks – O’Sullivan growing willow on site and Bolt repurposing the clay material found therein.

Access to funding

O’Sullivan says access to funding and mentoring has been paramount to establishing her business although she admits that, from the very beginning, she was careful always to make money from it.

“One of the key things that really helped me on my way was Hothouse mentoring with the UK Crafts Council two years ago. It was very uplifting but really shook me up in terms of being clear about my values and how I was going to negotiate that financially, because there are so many ways you can work commercially.

“In England, there are so many makers that you really have to compete to get onto programmes like that but it has brought be a huge amount of visibility.”

She says that, looking from afar, there seem to be “very strong platforms of support” in Ireland and Scotland and that she often feels “quite envious about the international representation they bring”.

She has learned with renowned Irish basket maker Joe Hogan and has been granted funding to learn with Alison Fitzgerald of Greenwood Baskets in Tyrone next year.

“In the last six months, my work has become ridiculously busy which has meant getting help in and a lot of delegating. I don’t want to continue to work that hard but it is going to take time to adjust to the level of interest in my work,” says O’Sullivan.

“At the moment, I am the only one who can produce the work, but I am currently training my husband Tom up to do it too. From a sustainability point of view, I have to measure out the amount of work I do. It is hard on my hands and wrists so there is definitely a limit to what I can do.”

Future plans include trips to New Zealand and Japan, and O’Sullivan says variety and the opportunity to travel and collaborate will always be of utmost importance.

“I’m working on more and more interesting projects all the time and increasingly find that I can dream up projects and find someone who is willing to host them.”

annemarieosullivan.co.uk

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