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Woodworker Olive Gill-Hille Creates Incredible Timber Sculptures That Double As Functional Furniture

Studio Visit

After studying Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the Victorian College of Arts, and feeling dissatisfied with the level of practical skills learnt, Olive Gill-Hille turned to furniture design and embraced utility. Now, the sculptor and woodworker brings both her studies together to create pieces that are either beautiful objects, functional design pieces – or something in between. 

In an upcoming exhibition at the inaugural Melbourne Design Fair with Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Olive combines utilitarian design with sculpture in her work, Nocturne; an occasional table with all the hallmarks of a beautiful piece of art.

16th March, 2022

Sculptor and woodworker Olive Gill-Hille stands with her work, Nocturne, in progress. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Two of Olive’s functional artworks/stools, titled Figures, made from Paulownia timber, being sanded before finishing. Photo – Olive Gill-Hille.

Olive working on carving a sculpture for her debut solo exhibition last year, TRUNK. Photo – Emma Pegrum.

Preliminary work on TRUNK, Olive’s debut solo exhibition last year. Photo – Emma Pegrum.

A piece of fallen Sheoak timber in Olive’s studio, yet to be carved. Photo – Olive Gill-Hille.

Olive working on Nocturne, her piece for the upcoming 2022 Melbourne Design Fair with Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert. Photo – Olivia Senior. 

An untitled work made from white Ash sits in the studio. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Olive works on Nocturne in the studio. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Artwork titled Torso, which was featured as part of Olive’s exhibition TRUNK at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert. This piece is made from ebonised Jarrah. Photo – Lajos Varga.

Olive holds Torso, another sculpture that featured in her exhibition TRUNK at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert. Photo – Emma Pegrum.

Olive’s sculpture titled Parts, made from ebonised Jarrah offcuts. Photo – Emma Pegrum.

Olive sits in her studio next to the in-progress Nocturne. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Nocturne, created from ebonised American Black Walnut. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Olive’s watercolour of her original design for Nocturne. Photo – Olivia Senior.

Bea Taylor
Wednesday 16th March 2022

‘I like knowing I’ve put the effort and time in. When I see the finished object, it’s always rewarding knowing I’ve produced it through hard work.’

Sculptor and woodworker Olive Gill-Hille’s work is evocative and fluid. Her finished timber pieces bear no sharp edges – a testament to her hours of carving and sanding. In fact, if it weren’t for the beautiful wood grains, you’d be forgiven for mistaking them as having been moulded out of clay. 

‘It’s a very physical process,’ Olive explains. ‘A lot of myself goes into each work, partly because of how labour intensive it is. If I’ve been carving or sanding all day, I’ll feel it.’ 

Having studied Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the Victorian College of Arts, Olive finished feeling unsatisfied with her lack of practical skills. Undeterred, she then pursued study in Furniture Design at RMIT, during which she spurned sculpture in favour of creating functional pieces. 

‘It felt freeing and allowed me to better understand materials and processes,’ she says. 

Now, no longer forsaking sculpture but embracing it alongside more functional design, Olive produces both art and furniture – and, a lot of the time, pieces that navigate the space between. 

Last year she debuted her first solo exhibition, TRUNK, at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert in Sydney. This year, she’s been working on a special piece for the inaugural Melbourne Design Fair as part of Melbourne Design Week

The piece in question; Nocturne, has been in the works for over a year, and as the name might suggest, was dreamt up during a few sleepless nights.   

Olive takes us through her mesmerising practice and sheds some light on Nocturne:

Talk us through your design process! How does a finished product get designed from start to finish?

The process starts with watercolours – sketching and painting is my method of working things out. Depending on the piece, I may stack laminate timber, which is a process that involves dressing, cutting, gluing and joining lengths of timber in arranged layers and then carving. For other pieces, I’ll find a whole chunk of timber and intuitively carve this using specialist wood-carving bits on angle grinders, chainsaws, gauges, rasps and chisels. Maybe surprisingly, the most transformative part of the process in the work is the sanding, it’s where the work gets smoothed out and is elevated into resembling the final form.

How physical is your practice and how does this impact you and how you work?

It’s a very physical process. A lot of myself goes into each work partly because of how labour intensive my practice is. I usually make a work from start to finish, completely by myself. If I’ve been at the studio carving or sanding all day, I’ll feel it. I like knowing I’ve put the effort and time in. When I see the finished object, it’s always rewarding knowing I’ve produced it through hard work.

What’s the hardest part about your job?

I’ve always said sanding is the hardest part, because it’s definitely the longest and most arduous part of the process, but lately I’ve found myself enjoying the rhythm of it and it’s become almost meditative. Maybe the hardest part is finding enough hands to help me manoeuvre some of my pieces – the largest works are very heavy and moving these by myself is challenging. I share a factory with some lovely cabinet makers and there was one instance where I had to ask seven of them to help rotate an especially heavy piece.

And the best?

A lot of woodworkers say this, but putting the last coat of finish on a work is one of the most satisfying feelings. For some art forms it’s hard to know when a work is truly ‘finished’, but for me, I know once I’ve put on that layer of finish that my work is done.

Tell us about your upcoming exhibition and ‘Nocturne’… What inspired this piece and how long have you been working on it?

Nocturne is a sculptural, functional artwork – its functionality rests as an occasional or entrance table. The idea of Nocturne started over a year ago when I was first working on my debut solo exhibition, TRUNK, at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert. It came about because during late nights where I would lie in bed and feel like I was being pulled in lots of directions. Nocturne was, in part, inspired by that feeling of juggling lots of things at once.

Nocturne is a music and art reference meaning, ‘how the night feels’ or ‘night scene’ and after I had completed the work, seeing it and thinking back to those nights where the work was conceived, ‘how the night feels’ is fundamental to what this piece is.

You can find Olive’s work at Melbourne Design Fair, Warehouse 16, 28 Duke Street, Abbortsford, from March 16 – March 20. 

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net