In the 1970s Greg Stirling’s ‘jobbing and wandering’ around the country saw him cross paths with Dickie Blackman, a prodigious craftsman also living on a craft community in Alice Springs. ‘Raised as a Quaker on a farm in the English Midlands, his disciplines were wide-ranging – woodwork, blacksmithing, leatherwork and other skills related to the maintenance of a 19th century farm. He was my mentor for 15 years, and has been the single-most influence on my work,’ tells Greg fondly.
In his early 20s, Greg was stirred to spend a year in Britain and Ireland. ‘I was especially inspired by my time in the South West of Ireland, where I lived in a small farming community, where their language, music and poetry was considered as vital as the food they ate for life’s nourishment,’ reminisces the Yarraville-raised creative. ‘That experience consolidated my desire to follow a career in craft, and on my return to Australia, I set up my own workshop and started making a range of small, simple pieces.’
Simple, though utterly beautiful, is his stable of traditional English and Welsh-style furniture: chairs, tables, benches, stools and other exquisitely crafted pieces. A cornerstone of his output, the bow back Windsor chair first enchanted Greg more than 30 years ago. ‘Utilising “how-to books” written by three different chair makers (an American, an Englishman and a Welshman!) I managed to teach myself how to make one… but that was only possible because I’d already had 10 years of experience developing slat-back Windsors, ladder backs, dressers, cottage chairs and tables,’ he explains.
Books are evidently a cherished resource of Greg’s – he’s currently reading Scottish Vernacular Furniture by Bernard D Cotton – and he maintains a keen interest in social history. Understanding how craft was integral to the survival of communities, how it evolved, and how it is still relevant today, all underpins the deep connection Greg feels for his work.
In his process, he restricts the use of machinery, favouring the ‘human factor’ of finish and expression. ‘I work each piece to the best of my ability rather than being a perfectionist; I find small imperfections endearing, it gives a piece of work grace,’ Greg explains.
As he goes about handcrafting in a small country workshop, located on his property outside Castlemaine, Greg often contemplates Australia’s colonial history, and how migrants came to terms with such a foreign, harsh environment. ‘Each time I make something rustic, I feel more connected to my Australian roots,’ he tells, pointing out a hint of the iconic Australian wool shed in the form of his comb back settee.
Over the past 40 years, the craftsman has witnessed great changes in the way people do business. Initially he sold his pieces through galleries, antique shops and, at art and craft festivals. Later it was through interior designers and direct commissions, and today, thanks to the advent of the internet, clients can commission Greg directly via his website, as well as follow his process and interact on Instagram. ‘People still want to connect with makers; they want to know their product is made with love and humanity,’ he justifies.
‘Applying a 19th century skill to the 21st century has been fraught with challenges,’ begins Greg when asked what comes next. ‘Somehow, I’ve managed – I attribute that to the people who want to purchase goods that express integrity and care!’ he tells. ‘Being part of this extraordinary experience of life, even in a modest way, has been everything I could ask for… Now back to the bench!’