Eamon Tobin - The Unlikley Craftsman

Of the many craftspeople Craft Editions has met, Eamon Tobin’s creative journey from carpet fitter to award-winning basket maker seems almost accidental - even to him. “I had no great ambition to be a craftsman” he laughs, when we meet in his Kilkenny house and workshop where he makes traditional and contemporary baskets.

Eamon originally went to university to study Multi Media Applications & Development but within months realised it wasn’t for him. Having met his wife at college they decided that she should continue to study while he went out to work. He started off sweeping floors in a carpet shop and then progressed to sales and carpet fitting. Throughout that time he says he always felt pride in his work and had a sense of achievement when he’d done a good job.

The downturn in the Irish economy coincided with the birth of the couple’s second son and so Eamon became a stay-at-home-dad. Having been a man who’d worked his whole life, the change of lifestyle took him a while to adjust to. He would spend his evenings whittling a piece of timber to relax, before throwing it in the fire. He realises now that even with carpet fitting, he’s someone who always liked working with his hands.

After his wife encouraged him to take some time off for himself, Eamon intended to do a blacksmith course but instead came across renowned basket maker Joe Hogan and went on one of his 4 day courses. At the time Eamon wasn’t so much drawn to the baskets but the material and the lifestyle. If you grow your own willow as he now does, then “you have the whole process at your fingertips and you can be totally immersed in it”.

He made his very first sciob (a basket traditionally used for straining potatoes) on that course, “it’s a horrible basket but it has happy memories!” Although he enjoyed the experience he had no intention of continuing. A week later however, he found himself looking at baskets on the internet and within a month he’d read Joe’s book from cover to cover, bought and practiced on some willow and booked to go on his second course.

Eamon fell in love with what he calls the ‘alchemy’ of basket making. “You can come in with a bundle of sticks, within half an hour they’re a circular shape and after you’ve spent some time and worked with them you have a product, something real.” For those first few years, basket making was still very much a hobby. He estimates that he made over 100 baskets, most of which he claims were rubbish and so he burned them.

So what was the transition from hobbyist to master craftsmen? Eamon is slightly embarrassed to admit that it was due in part to appearing on a reality television show ‘Craft Master’ in which 3 basket makers with different levels of experience spent time with a master maker. He didn’t really enjoy the TV production process and so was surprised when a month later he started getting recognition for the work he’d made on the programme. Award-winning ceramicist Karen Morgan approached him to sell baskets in her shop and this led to a collaboration. He also met Kathleen Leadbetter of Jerpoint Glass who praised his work. This recognition from such esteemed craftspeople was a boost to his confidence.

Eamon focuses predominantly on commissions and last year made a basket for Prince Charles, following a project with the Heritage Council. However, he continues to sell traditional sciobs and shopping baskets online and in shops as well as running basket making courses once a month. He learned an important lesson from Joe Hogan who said “Now the head work is done, time to do the heart work”.

Eamon says that “by doing the traditional work it throws up the ideas, the pearl in the oyster, of how to do the artistic work.” His artistic baskets are extraordinary in their beauty and innovation. He explores unusual shapes such as wobbly jars and weaves different materials together; willow with bark and thorns, or willow woven through driftwood. The results are breathtaking.

Eamon seems to have found a near-perfect work-life balance and appreciates the flexibility of his craft. He has to be disciplined in his work to fit around the school hours: the school bus collects the boys at 9am and they’re back at 3pm, but being a working dad and craftsman suits him well.

As the commissions increase Eamon says that his basket making hobby now “feels more like work” but it’s work that he loves. “I don’t put it off or shy away from it, I see it now as a profession…When you’re a professional making artistic baskets it gives you a sense of purpose.”

Find out more about Eamon Tobin here.

Basket images courtesy of Roland Paschhoff and by kind permission of Eamon Tobin.

Image of Eamon Tobin by Craft Editions.