We are fortunate to have a number of international members here at Woodturners Unlimited and now have the opportunity to get to know one of them a bit better as Les Symonds has agreed to be profiled for our “Behind the Art” series. Les was born on December 5th 1952 in Pontyclun, a little village in South Wales. “My mum was artistic, but grew up in an age (and in a family) where ladies were not encouraged to have interests outside the family home. She was an accomplished knitter and often held council with neighbours who would bring their knitting disasters to our home for her to put right. If I inherited a single ounce of artistic ability, then this must be where it came from.”

“When I was in my pre-school years, we lived in a social-housing development on a hill on the outskirts of our village. One of my neighbours had a niece, Sally, who used to call to visit them and I first met her when I was just three or four years old. This was to be a relationship that developed as the years went by and we eventually got engaged and married….next year will be our 40th wedding anniversary. We have one son, Huw, who lives nearby and is a food and house services manager at a local hotel, and our part-time volunteer shop keeper on occasional days.”

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Les has always had an interest in art and won a national competition while in junior school though describes getting very little encouragement from his teachers who suggested he pursue other career paths. While he has worked at a number of jobs, he has always found a way to come back to art and teaching, clearly his two passions. “My working life started in 1972. I had been training to be a woodwork teacher, but teaching posts were few and far between and I was becoming a bit disillusioned with my career choice. I had a summer holiday job in an import/export warehouse which paid better than what I could have expected as a teacher, so the next thing you know, I abandoned my plans to teach and became a warehouse and dispatch manager. About ten years later, British Industry went into decline and my wife and I, along with Huw, our 22-month-old toddler, decided to move away from the industrialized area that we lived in to a far more rural area in the north of Wales. For about the next ten years I did a bit of carpentry and kitchen fitting and even ran my own business making exhibition and display cabinets for galleries, shopping malls and theatres. In 1994, I took a position in a children’s home, caring for children in the 11-19 year old bracket, who had a moderate to severe learning disability, and severely challenging behavior. I really took to that work and soon rose through the ranks to become a team leader after which I was transferred from the care team to the education team. As the years passed I continued to develop my career by going to night school on a course franchised by the University of Wales, to gain the teaching certificate and degree that I had formerly opted out of so many years earlier. I achieved my Certificate in Education and Training, with distinction, and my Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Training, with First Class Honours.”

Having worked his way back to teaching, Les was again able to bring art into his curriculum. “I specialized in teaching a group of 16 to 19 year olds, the social and life skills that they would need when they left the children’s home. Art and woodwork always featured quite highly in my curriculum and we embarked on projects that most of the staff thought were far too advanced, but which always came to fruition. I loved boating and would teach basic boat handling skills to my boys, and at one point I bought a 40 ft long, narrow-boat which was in a dreadful condition, but I set up a work experience scheme for one of my boys and between us we transferred a rusting hulk into our dream boat, complete with saloon, galley, bedroom and bathroom.We would enter the boat into numerous waterways festivals and won first prize for themed artistic displays on several occasions.”

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This career path seemed to be working well for Les until last year when he had what turned out to be a life changing event. “The severity of the young people I worked with was always a challenge but became more so when the owners of the home brought to live there, a young man with a serious mental health disorder. Such was his behavior that in June of 2014 I was rather badly assaulted, an event which left me lapsing in and out of consciousness and having seizures for a half hour or so. I was unable to work for several months and throughout this period being able to spend time on my lathe was a major factor in my fight against depression following the assault.”

Like many of us, Les was first introduced to the lathe in school. About 10 years later, he picked up a lathe and briefly turned some utilitarian items before selling it. In 2012, he saw an ad for a lathe, bought it, and hasn’t looked back since. “At the beginning of this year I made a decision not to return to my teaching career and my wife Sally and I decided to set up our own small business. I had been selling some of my wood turnings through local hotels and galleries, and was disillusioned by the amount of money that I was losing through commission. This coincided with there being an empty property on our High Street and very favourable terms for new business start-ups, so we took the plunge and set up ‘Pren’ (Welsh for WOOD).”

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Having done something many of us only fantasize about, Les seems to be doing well and is quite pleased with his decision. “Essentially, Pren was to be the showcase for my work, but we were realistic about the prospect of earning an income from my work alone and there was not an established market for my sort of work in this region. Thus we came upon a plan; we would set up a window and the front end of our premises to look like a gallery, but further inside we would stock a range of locally produced craft-ware, as well as a range of bought-in home accessories that we felt stood well alongside my work. On opening day, at the end of March this year, I had nearly 300 pieces, ranging from bowls and platters, to simple keyrings. The first week was quiet and very little of my work sold, but on the weekend we were sought out by several professional people who had heard about us. My bowls sold like hot cakes and I guess that was the beginning of the process of developing my market and my customer base. I remember the sense of panic at having so many empty spaces on the gallery shelves and I even felt some sort of sense of loss at parting with pieces of work that I had put so much time and effort into.”

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“We have recently completed our first half-year of trading and our turnover has been about 35% ahead of our projected figure. I get commissions which range from as little as £20 up to £350 and pieces of work that I have tentatively priced a little higher than I feel I should, continue to sell. I have several repeat-customers who keep coming back for more and am occasionally given free rein to make exactly what I want for them. Their confidence in me gives me immense satisfaction in my work.”

When asked whose work has influenced him, Les mentions Ray Key and Anders Thorlin early on and more recently Mark Sanger and Pete Moncrieff-Jury. In terms of his style and artistic vision, he describes many interests though continues to be drawn to distressed and natural edged pieces of wood. “My current work is highly varied and I am yet to develop a style of my own, although I do tend to favour using distressed pieces of timber, natural edges and wet turning. I love to incorporate other, sympathetic materials into some of my pieces, especially semi-precious stones, leather, copper and small amounts of silver. I have designed and built my own jigs for holding distressed timber and am content to use split and cracked timber, which I often repair with stitches or staples.”

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Interestingly, Les sometimes sketches out his ideas before bringing them to life.

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“As for the future direction of my work, my head is awash with projects that I want to develop. I am currently having fun with scorching and liming oak; surface texture is very important to me and I have been known to take a well finished bowl and then, dissatisfied with a mirror-smooth finish, sand it hard with 40 grit paper, then work up through the grades to get the mirror-smooth finish, but with amazingly tactile grain which stands out like a three-dimensional contour map. I have installed an air compressor and grit-blasting equipment so that I can play further with surface texture. I am also looking at steam bending to make fine spindles, bent to shape to add legs to a series of round-bottomed bowls and urns that I want to make.”

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Les has also made a number of fixtures to help him work on his challenging pieces of wood.

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An important part of these articles has always been learning a bit about the person behind the art. As you would expect from what we’ve learned about Les thus far, he has many other interests. He has done some ceramic work as well as calligraphy which he even used to make a little extra money writing menus and notices for a local inn. “Outside wood-turning, my main interest is in being out of doors. I love hill walking and there’s plenty of scope for that where I live.” Les so loves the area he now lives, the town of Bala in Snowdonia National Park, that he has written an article for us about the rugged terrain he calls home and you can read that here.

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“I have owned many boats, from simple little sailing dinghies to a 40 foot canal cruiser though I sold my last boat a few years ago and have since had a motorhome and more recently a caravan so that we can escape to the country in comfort when the need arises. A few years ago I was seriously into geocaching and would structure many of my holidays and even business trips around the location of caches – I even arrived at a crematorium a couple of hours early so that I could find a series of caches before the funeral started.”

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Being a new entrepreneur, it has become more difficult for Les to take time away from the shop. “Because the business is new, it takes up all of our time. We are having so much fun with it at the moment, but the caravan sits on the drive and will surely be used soon. I love meeting up with friends occasionally for a meal and, in the summer, I enjoy a bit of gardening. My dogs are a great source of fun and there’s no greater pleasure than taking them to the lake or the beach and watching them darting in and out of the water chasing balls and sticks.”

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His interest in teaching, however, has not lessened with his change in careers. “I have built a little studio workshop in the back of the shop and installed a lathe and a basic set of equipment to go with it. Customers are free to stand and watch me turn, and some have joined in, most notably, a young lad who made a simple magician’s wand, he (and his parents) were really pleased with it. I plan to develop this side of the business by offering classes but am aware that as a self-taught turner, I need to adjust and perfect some of my techniques before I start teaching wood-turning. My main workshop at home is tiny, so I will have to build a new workshop/studio before teaching can start.”

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Les also has very sound advice for the new turners- “In the early stages, just enjoy your work. Don’t work in a vacuum, like I did, but seek out other turners and get your inspiration from them. Invite constructive criticism and act upon it. Don’t be afraid to accept defeat; far better to give up on a failing piece of work than to waste time trying to elevate its status.”

I imagine that being a professional artist is something many of us daydream about but few are able or willing to do. Les puts it in perspective. “What motivates me is my simple love of wood turning, alongside the buzz that I get from determining my own future. Having worked in industry and education for most of my life, I have had to temper my efforts to match the performance criteria that others wished to measure. All that nonsense stopped when I resigned and set up Pren. My work is not stress-free, but it is a dawdle compared with what I have experienced in the world of work. I strive to achieve pleasing designs, of a high quality, but at a sensible price.”

“For much of my life I have been a bit of a drifter, steering a path where circumstances seem to take me, rather than taking control of my own journey. I started to question that path after the horrid events of last year and determined to do something about it – hence ‘Pren’.”

Clearly Les has had his share of challenges recently between his life changing assault and injury followed by his wife Sally’s diagnosis of cancer shortly after opening up their shop earlier this year. Fortunately, Les tells me that the cancer was caught early and after surgery and radiation therapy, she is felt to be cancer free. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Les but I can tell from our correspondences that, despite all he’s been through recently, he remains a very positive and upbeat guy who seems to always find the bright side of a situation. If I ever do make it to Wales, I will certainly visit “Pren” and hopefully get a chance to sit down with the proprietor for a pint at the local pub.

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Wednesday the 21st. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.