Sculptor and miniature boat maker Elise Cameron Smith happened upon woodworking in a round-about way, whist undertaking a degree in product design. She loved the craft so much, she never ended up going back into design, instead enrolling in a one-year intensive furniture making course.
The boats were a bit of an accident too. ‘I made my first boats back in 2014. I had been making furniture for a few years, and always enjoyed making little sculpture pieces out of offcuts and waste materials’, Elise tells. ‘I found a few nice curves and joined them together and that’s how the first miniature boat came to life!’
There’s something pretty magical about the way Elise works – she approaches her craft almost as if she’s living in a different time. She takes great care to ensure her materials are sustainably sourced – either FSC Certified White Beech or offcuts from furniture making friends – and any scraps she has leftover are used to make the fire that cooks her lunch each day in the studio (usually roast potatoes!). The sawdust her work generates goes down the compost toilet.
We visited Elise in her studio in Helensburgh to learn more about her life as Captain Elise Cameron Smith – ‘miniature boat maker and builder of dreams’!
Were you a creative kid growing up, and have you had any formal arts training?
I’m not sure that I was a super creative young kid, I really loved everything to do with camping, fishing and the beach.
I was around 20 when I started dedicating a lot of time and effort to the creative world. I was studying Product Design, and quickly realised I had zero engineering skills, and was really struggling. I enrolled in a part-time woodworking course just to try to help me with that [product design], but after a few hours in the workshop I fell in love with making. After that, I enrolled in a one-year intensive fine furniture making course at the Sturt School For Wood in Mittagong, and just loved it so much I never went back into design.
Where does your love of boats come from?
My Dad always had fishing boats and we spent so many weekends as a family out on the water when I was growing up. I’ve got a little tinny called Daisy, she’s a little old and rough – but I like her that way!
I love the symbolism of a boat, which can represent an adventure, a crossing or a new dream, or a new experience of any kind. You can be the master of your own destiny. And whether you’re into boats or not, people still really connect with that symbolism.
Tell us a little about your woodworking process, and the (amazing!) space you work out of?
A few months ago I set up an off-grid shipping container workshop in the bush. I get regular visits from a big family of wallabies, and the occasional deer. There are lyrebirds, kookaburras and black cockatoos and I feel so lucky to go to work in such an amazing environment every day.
These days I’ll smash out a few hours of machining early in the week, and get the generator fired for that. Then there are days of quiet hand tool work – just carving, shaping, sanding and finishing things off. Sometimes I’ll listen to podcasts and music, but a lot of the time I like the silence and enjoy listening to the birds.
It’s so good working on your own, you can get into real focus mode, and concentrate for really long periods of time. But sometimes to keep myself sane I like to take my little rowboat out and paddle around in the afternoons. And I made a swing for the verandah which is also lots of fun.
What inspires your work?
The ocean and the water is always my biggest source of inspiration and creativity, but I love reading old woodworking books, and also really like romance novels and Wes Anderson films.
What are you looking forward to this year – do you have any dream projects on your mind?
This year I want to build a tiny house that looks like a boat shed, with a giant porthole window looking out into the bush. And I want to make all the walls all from shingles. I don’t know how to do any of these things yet, but I’m looking forward to figuring it out!
Check out Elise’s website and online store here, and keep up with all her creative adventures on Instagram.