Women Who Make: Amy Isles Freeman, Cornwall Life, February 2017

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Falmouth-based artist Amy Isles Freeman combines woodworking and fine art to create hand-turned wooden bowls decorated with scenes inspired by nature and the female form. She tells Katie Treggiden about finding her voice in Cornwall.

Amy Isles Freeman came to Cornwall kicking and screaming. “My mum brought me to Falmouth to look at the art school, very much against my will,” she laughs. “I was absolutely furious that she wanted me to even consider somewhere so far from London, because I thought it was of paramount importance that I was there.” However, the people she met on that one visit changed her mind almost immediately. “As soon as I saw all the beautiful healthy faces of people living here, either just about to go surfing or coming off the beach, I knew that I had been very wrong. The pace of life here is slower, and it has given me the space to understand what genuinely makes me happy.”

A foundation course at Falmouth University in 2010 led to a fine art degree, in which Amy focused on printmaking and shied away from three-dimensional work – until her final project, a series of large wooden structures. “I avoided ‘making’ for most of my time at art school, for fear of not knowing what I was doing,” she explains. But that final project set something in motion and, on graduating, she was keen to make something that “existed and didn’t just hang on a wall”. Friend and fellow maker Felix McCormack offered to teach her to turn wood on a lathe. “Felix showed me how the lathe worked, introduced me to some timbers, and guided me through my first endeavours with great patience. It took a while to feel confident, but I learnt quickly.”

Combining her newfound skill with her love of painting was the obvious next step. “It was always the idea that I would paint my bowls,” she says. “I wanted to create a new canvas for myself.” Having found her medium, she needed to find her message, and so Amy turned back to her time at Falmouth University. “When I was at art school I became fascinated with feminist art, and felt, finally, that I had found a theme that rang true for me,” she says. “However, much of the work was angry, and rightly so, but I didn’t believe that making angry work in the 2010s would achieve as much as it did in the 1970s.”

A Dorothy Iannone exhibition at Camden Arts Centre in 2013 revealed another way. “Her work was so funny, so joyful and exciting, but her message still sang through,” Amy explains. “I realised that I could make work that seemed light-hearted but was still meaningful. So my work exploded with colour and naked ladies! I want to make people smile, and make myself smile as I work, so my paintings are joyful and cheeky, highly colourful and decorative, but with underlying themes of female identity and power. I want to make images of strong women, owning their sexuality, enjoying and respecting themselves and other women. I understand that for lots of people, the comment on female sexual identity is lost amid the pretty nature of the work and that’s fine, but every so often someone really gets it and that’s really exciting.”

Amy’s work is full of beguiling contradictions. It is incredibly joyful and yet carries an important message; it straddles the worlds of high art and functional design; it combines the stereotypically ‘male’ skill of woodturning with decorative art, more often seen as more ‘feminine’; it is both vulnerable and yet incredibly strong. It embodies all the things a modern woman can be – the perfect representation of its creator.