Wood sculptor Karen Beard tells Neil Hudson about encouraging children to get out doors and why being diagnosed as dyslexic was so liberating
“I’m 5ft on a good day,” observes the 47-year-old, who works at Outdoor Classrooms Ltd, Pudsey. “If I really stretch, I’m 5ft. The real problem is getting the safety gear to fit - it’s okay in winter when you have several layers on but come summer, it’s a struggle.”
Her height is not something which seems to bother her overmuch, though.
“A lot of the pieces I make end up being bigger than me. The only problem comes when I have to move them, because some of them are really heavy.”
For the last 10 years, Karen has been turning out larger than life wooden sculptures of animals - from snails and snakes to bears and rabbits - and sending them to educational gardens up and down the country, including many right here in Leeds.
Her principal tools for this somewhat obscure line of work are the chisel and the chainsaw.
“I’m very lucky I get to do so many different things,” she says. “I was carving a snail the other day and thought to myself, how many other people in the world are stood on a giant piece of wood with a chainsaw carving a snail right now? Probably not many.”
Karen was born in the village of Hunston, Suffolk, which she describes as “almost too small to be a village”, having “a post box, a phone box and two metres of pavement”.
However, it had its advantages.
“We had a big garden, which often became a nursery for sick and injured animals like voles, field mice, rabbits and hedgehogs, which is probably where my love of carving animals comes from.”
Karen moved to Leeds in order to do a degree at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) and after three years she came out with a very respectable 2.1 in child development through play.
But her path through academia hasn’t been smooth. She struggled with reading throughout her school life - even taking a dyslexia test, which came back negative.
“I remember getting an A for my English verbal exam but an E for the written one and thinking there’s something going on here but when we asked if I was dyslexic, we were told no.”
As it turned out, the test result was incorrect and Karen was diagnosed with the condition after she left college. It was a defining moment in her life.
“It was a real relief, because I was still very nervous about writing but after being diagnosed, it was like a weight had been lifted and I could now just tell people. It took all the pressure away. So, when I went to university, I had help, I got some tinted glasses and I actually ended up getting higher grades there than I did at A levels.”
Having been through that, she is now keen to inspire other children who might be experiencing similar difficulties.
“For everything I don’t have from being dyslexic, I have other skills, it’s about being able to see things visually. When it comes to carving, I am much more at home with that. For me, when I’m carving, my fingers end at the very end of the chisel and the chainsaw. I no longer see the dyslexia as a disadvantage. I’m very keen now for children to have those kinds of experiences, so getting children playing outside is very important to me.
“If you think back to what you remember as a kid, it’s things like den making, finding things and going exploring. I understand you need the maths but outdoor play, touching things, finding out how they work and so on, is also very important.”
Karen was working as a nursery assistant at Little London Children’s Nursery when she first met Richard Kirby, founder of Outdoor Classrooms.
“He was working in the garden fitting play equipment and I asked if we could make a bear sculpture, so we could go on bear hunts with the children. So we carved it together and that where it all started. I was already interested in carving, in fact I think half my DNA is carved from wood. My father carved and I began at about 13; my grandfather was a carpenter and he learned from his uncle, so it runs in the family.”
Karen and Richard ended up working on a project together and later she went to work for him part-time, then eventually full time.
“At the time I remember being concerned about where the wood he was using was coming from, because I was aware of the clear-felling of hardwood timber being a problem, but Richard fells his own wood from managed forests.”
While some of the wood comes from Otley, other pieces are sourced from Leeds City Council.
“Sometimes when a piece of wood comes in, you can just see what’s inside. You might look at it and think ‘That’s a snail’, whereas other times it’s not as obvious. There’s something intrinsically beautiful about wood.
“For me, when I am carving, it’s almost as though you switch off from the outside world. It’s a lovely feeling.
“I’m really passionate about the good sculptures like this can do children. They are not there to just look pretty and be decorative, they are there so children can touch them and climb on them and use all their senses. I’ve seen the good they can do with my own eyes. They engage children in a way a book cannot.”
Karen adds: “One of the things we are very keen on at Outdoor Classrooms is engaging with children and schools in ways which encourage children to go outside and explore more. It’s a really important part of their learning and development.”
Outdoor Classrooms has developed a range of climbing logs which can be seen on their facebook site or website.
Karen also designs and manufactures a range of traditionally made timber framed buildings at Outdoor Classrooms, Pudsey.
Contact details: www.outdoorclassrooms.co.uk or facebook Outdoor Classrooms
Outdoor Classrooms was originally set up in 1992 as a volunteer group to promote children’s environmental education
From time to time they have a give away of resources, including trees for planting, den making materials, natural building blocks and woodworking kits
Recently, they gave away of over 100 tee-pees to local schools and still have a limited number left for primary schools
The next give-away will be all about food growing - any teachers interested should contact them
Tel: 0113 2556342