The Age Newspaper

January 2nd 2016

Born and Bred for a Star Turn.


Words: Konrad Marshall. Pictures: Eddie Jim.

The galloping beasts are made of kiln dried radiata, a strand of pine that is at once readily available, strong, and easy to carve.

Olivia O’Connor spends her days and nights with the wood, serving and sanding and smoothing it into the right shapes with clamps, rasps, draw knives and bandsaws.

Her workshop is filled with tools covered in cobwebs and sawdust, and stencils for tracing every limb. But the head is always the hardest part. “Because it’s immediately obvious if you get something wrong,” she says. “And when you get it wrong with a horse, they tend to look evil.”

It’s hard to imagine the creations of this bespoke craftswoman, 27, looking anything but beautiful. But she would know.

O’Connor grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, riding horses in Tyabb. Her father trained steeplechase thoroughbreds and little Olivia helped, mucking out the stables.

Now dad runs Angus beef cattle on a farm in Berrys Creek, outside Leongatha which is where O’Connor works (she lives in nearby Mirboo).

Her shed on the family farm has a view of rolling Gippsland hills and dams. In summer it’s a furnace, in winter she wears gloves with the thumb and forefinger missing.

“Growing up I always liked doing new things,” she says. “Clay, sewing, mosaics, lead-light windows – learning new techniques for building.” In high school she was always working with wood, so it was no surprise when she enrolled in a furniture design course at RMIT. Yet she left that, after only one year, having listened to too many naysayers about the prospects of a professional career working with timber. You’ll be in a factory stapling side A to side B, they said, so think about what you want to do.

“Well,” she says, “that sounded awful.” Instead she enrolled in a prop making and scenic painting course at NIDA, and loved every minute. “One week you would be making puppets, the next week building a 10 meter high sculpture.”

She gathered new skills that serve her vocation today – woodcarving, leather work, airbrushing. Her third year project was her very first rocking horse, and yet she didn’t jump immediately into the trade. She went to London first and worked for the Royal National Theatre as a saddle maker for the New York production of War Horse. She returned to Australia and settled in Sydney next, working as a prop maker and scenic artist for everything form Opera Australia to FOX Studios.

She scrimped and saved and within a year had enough money to set herself up with some heavy machinery and a tool shop. She did a small business course, and began working almost three years ago.

She now makes rocking horses in three sizes – ponies, mares and stallions – painted to any natural horse colours or markings. People tend to treat the objects as heirlooms.

“I often get people requesting a black horse with a white sock and a star on its face because it matches a pony they had when they were a kid, which is quite nice.”

It takes a month to make one horse, and they range in price form $2950 to $4050, although she is also starting a more basic “entry level” range with less hand carving required.

She does all the miniature saddle work herself – plus stirrups, girth and bridle – the tails are real horse hair cut often form the back of her father’s horses.

“I especially like the fact that this stuff will get looked after and cared for, and that you’ve made something a family will keep and treasure, through generations. As opposed to prop making in which almost everything gets tossed out after the production, and ends ip in a skip.”