Words by Donna Reidy-Maguire
Our artist in residence this month is Joe Hogan who talks about his journey to becoming a celebrated master basket maker.
The Connemara landscape has always emanated an otherworldly or mystical feeling whenever I find myself lucky enough to visit. The landscape has an undeniable presence that transcends mere “scenery”. Master basket maker and Connemara resident Joe Hogan agrees with me, “The older I’m getting the more I can feel the landscape as a “presence”- a presence that is inevitably reflected in his dynamic and impressive body work over the past four decades.
From his workshop overlooking Loch na Fooey, Hogan has been creating both functional and artistic baskets since the 1970’s. The premise for Joe was simple, find a craft to combine with small scale farming that would allow him and his wife Dolores to live self-sufficiently in the country. Basket making seemed an obvious choice because of the ease of which he could grow willow and Connemara was the desired location. With this goal in mind, they moved to Mallow in Co. Cork to allow Joe to undertake training in the art of making baskets. A promised apprenticeship ended in disappointment when it transpired that the man offering the training was not able to make baskets. Undeterred, Joe became acquainted with the Quinlan brothers in Co. Waterford who although did not offer training, welcomed Joe into their studio to observe their process. “I would just sit in their workshop and bit by bit got a feeling for what was involved; they demystified the process and were very supportive”. When Joe returned to Connemara after his time with the Quinlan brothers, they provided him with his very first cuttings of their willow to begin harvesting his own crop. He describes the process of harvesting willow as a simple one, “you just need clean, fertile ground where you plant your willow cuttings in rows much like you would grow vegetables” and admits that “growing willow has greatly enhanced the enjoyment of the process of making”.
Having began his career making functional baskets, Joe now only makes artistic or “non-functional” baskets, describing this making process as much slower and with more uncertainty, “each basket is unique and requires you to respond to different circumstances in their creation”. The baskets are generally made upside down, a much slower process that is modelled on the idea behind the traditional Irish basket known as the donkey creel. Artistic baskets also generally contain a lot less willow and are often a combination of various natural elements, such as wood which Joe began to incorporate into his work from 2001 onwards. On one of his regular walks in the Connemara countryside, Joe discovered some bog pine, a wood that has been exposed after turf cutting and decided to bring it home. At the time, he didn’t immediately think he would incorporate it into his baskets, he was merely interested in the wood as an element in its own right but “as time went on and making baskets is what I know, so it came to be”.
Having had wonderful mentors at the beginning of his career, Joe is passionate about teaching and passing on traditions, “I learned a huge amount from teaching; first of all it makes you question why you do things in a particular way. You are forced to examine if there is a way you could do something more simply or make it easier. The biggest thing that I get from teaching is the joy of sharing. Passing on a tradition which means a good bit to you is rewarding but there is also a great satisfaction to be had of awakening that joy of sharing with others”. His son Kieran is a functional basketmaker based in Spiddal, carrying on the tradition of both making and teaching. Having made both functional and artistic baskets in tandem for 20 years, Joe has embraced the freedom to explore his artistic basketmaking safe in the knowledge he has plenty of referrals such as his son Kieran for those seeking functional baskets.
With commercial pressure a significant concern for emerging artists and makers what advice does he have for those who are developing their craft today? “I’m not one to give advice but I really do think that it’s hugely important to keep that joy. I certainly think that one needs to carve out some time every week or every month to try new work and stimulate yourself in some way because there is no doubt that the commercial pressures can be hard. I’ve known people that have burned themselves out and it’s always a pity that it can come to that. For me personally, I like to change from growing willow, to harvesting willow to making. It might be more efficient to just make baskets, but I quite like the roundedness of this process and growing tends to inform the making. For those that don’t have this cyclical option, I would say to ask yourself the question “Am I still enjoying it?” very frequently and if not then change it. We only have one life so it’s important to ask ourselves, are we enjoying it.”
Joe Hogan has exhibited all over the world and his work now forms part of the National Museum of Ireland’s collection. For more information visit: joehoganbaskets.com