Sasha Douglas loves her work!

I get to meet lots of interesting people, but Sasha Douglas is genuinely one of a kind. Following a sojourn in the corporate world, she returned to her art, picking up on an interest she developed in her childhood. I am beyond impressed, that she has created a market for an art form which can totally absorb her. Deeply intelligent, creative and thoughtful, I interviewed Sasha Douglas recently.

What is your job exactly?
I own a small business, Rocking Horse Studio and restore, research, import, collect, and sell antique rocking horses. I do everything: from sourcing to the artwork on the horses, to their conservation and repair. I also build replacement parts. When the right horse turns up, I’ll buy it from anywhere in the world, and in the past have bought horses from the UK and US.

Why do you love your work?
I like the personal connection with my clients. Finding the right match between the horse and each owner; it's an incredibly personal process and there’s an intimacy there. It’s not lucrative, but for me, it’s a lovely experience. I love transforming an old wreck that looks ready for the tip into something that looks beautiful again.

It’s immersive work; I lose myself working out what’s wrong, what needs to be done and then figuring out how to do it. All that sanding and woodwork and artwork – removing later layers of paint in particular is very meditative. 

I like how I can combine the art and making something beautiful whilst also doing the technical work. The work and the business integrate all the disparate parts of my background and myself.

What kind of work did you do previously?
Most recently, I worked as a business analyst for a global pharmaceuticals company.  Before that, I worked in procurement and logistics. But long ago, I was an artist. 

Do you remember what you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
What I do remember was that I just didn’t know. I had the sense I could do anything if I put my mind to it but I couldn’t settle on one thing I wanted to put my mind to.

What was your first ever job?
I was the office junior in a geotechnical engineering consultancy. This was just after I'd dropped out at my first attempt at university and was waiting to start art training the following year.

What have you studied?
I did graphic design, which gave me grounding in design, technique and composition. After painting for many years, I did a business degree.

What are your career or business plans?
I’m at the stage where our little boy is in kindergarten and I can have a more structured work life. I’m making decisions about treating the rocking horses as a more serious business or moving back into fine arts; but I think the rocking horses hold more interest. Certainly more passion than I have for art.

How did you get into rocking horses?
When I was a teenager, my parents came home raving about rocking horses they'd seen in a store in Kangaroo Valley.  I had an immediate connection and wanted one, but they said I was too big. I then visited the store, loved what I saw and decided this was something I could do down the track. From that time I planned to build a rocking horse. When I had a real horse, I cut hair from the mane to keep for the rocking horse I imagined myself making one day. I found the hair 20 years later when I was home with a young baby, and remembered my plan. I decided to do up an old wreck rather than start from scratch. I was won over by the old horse I bought on Ebay. I then realised it was a perfect christening gift for my goddaughter so I put an ad on Gumtree trying to buy another wreck to do up for her. People began contacting me, not because they wanted to sell, but because they hoped I'd restore their horses. I had been planning to start back on art but that was incompatible with raising a baby, thanks to highly toxic pigments and short shelf life of the paints. I needed something of my own to do as I was a bit disoriented after a year in which everything changed. (I even remember one melodramatic moment in which I howled “I don’t even have my own name any more!”). Restoring rocking horses seemed like something that would give me a sense of being productive, was enjoyable and clearly there was a need. I built my own website and very soon found a work list to keep me busy for a loooong time.

What does your work schedule look like?
The week starts with “Mumday”. I go to reading groups and violin lessons at my son’s school, and then I run house-related errands. I work a full day on Tuesdays with my son at after school care and another two part days, interspersed with all the daily household things that need doing because I work from home. I’ll bump up my hours as my son becomes more independent and can handle another day at after care.

What do you wear to work?
Blundstone boots, paint spattered jeans/cords, paint splattered gloves and often a facemask.

Are clothes important in the workplace?
No – as long as I’m comfortable and protected that’s all that matters.

What do you find crazy about your job?
I think it’s crazy that I ship these old wrecks halfway around the world. It’s a huge risk. I’m sure everyone who found out what I was doing thought I was crazy. But it works. People are captivated and passionate about the horses. I am always amazed when people are prepared to wait a long time for their horse, which they wouldn’t consider for anything else.  I hear from people, even people in their 60’s - they sometimes sound embarrassed and think everyone will assume they’re silly to still want a rocking horse.  They nearly always say they’ve always wanted a rocking horse … the number of times I hear that! It really is quite moving. 

If you had the possibility to go back and change anything, would you?
Yes – I’d go back and take my HSC seriously. I really wish I’d applied myself so that I’d learned discipline by the time I left school, it was hard and took a long time to learn that by myself. Being self-employed in my 20s without a really strong sense of discipline or someone to push me was really difficult. Good marks would have been helpful too, I feel I could have done anything.

Do you have a mentor?
My husband is my mentor because he has such a profoundly genuine moral and ethical code. From him, I’ve learned important lessons like how not to compromise on integrity. He’s still teaching me how not to be walked over. My mother taught me my art, so she must be acknowledged. I know an amazing antique restorer and artist who is incredibly generous with his knowledge. I wouldn’t call them mentors, but there are three or four restorers whose work I really admire. I’m interested in their work and learn from what they’re doing. 

How do you unwind?
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but TV. I like bushwalks, classical music, gardening, reading, playing scrabble, a glass of wine and a good chat.

What do you want to do later with your work? 
My mother was a commercial artist before she dedicated her life to Orthodox iconography, specifically in Byzantine style. She spent years researching, learning and working out techniques in the 1970s when it was a lost art. She taught me and I was a decent iconographer in my own right before I studied business. She now wants to retire and wants to hand over to me. It’s a dilemma as it’s less taxing, it’s easier logistically but I’m enjoying myself too much with rocking horses. I’d like to build a rocking horse one day – but time wise, that would be demanding as I am booked ahead for the next three or four years.  I do need to think about what else I can do, though, as I’ve inherited mum’s arthritis and I don’t know if I can keep up the restorations indefinitely. I think about freshening up my art and doing watercolours or animal portraiture.

Do you have any side projects?
My garden and renovating the house – we’re in a California bungalow that hadn’t been well maintained when we bought it, so we do bits and pieces on it when we can. There was a huge poorly sited swimming pool that we’ve had filled in, reclaimed 120 square metres of land which we’re gradually converting into a garden.

What’s been your proudest career moments?
I’ve just finished exhibiting at the Toy Festival put on by Sydney Living Museums at Rouse Hill House and Farm, which is an important historical property. That was a standout in many ways. Being invited to participate felt like a huge privilege. I showed a number of rocking horses and people had never see anything like it and they were excited. Also, the great great granddaughter of the maker of one of the horses I’d restored saw what I’d done and she was just delighted. That horse was one of a kind. It was fascinating to see my work in 19th century stables, it was a completely different context and they took on another dimension, and looked like they had a life of their own.

In 2008 I was invited to exhibit some of my icons at St Mary’s Cathedral in a private exhibition for Pope Benedict XVI and delegates for World Youth Day. At the time I wasn’t even painting, and hadn’t been for a few years. The invitation coincided with starting to think about phasing out of corporate work back to art, it turned out to be the encouragement I needed and I made up my mind to set the wheels in motion. I’m not someone who seeks publicity so to be sought out and invited is enormously flattering.

What do you think you’d you be doing if you weren’t working on the rocking horses?
I can’t imagine anything else.

Describe the biggest fail a person can have running their own business?
Not getting numbers straight – not understanding how much goes into a product. In antique auctions, I’m incredibly strict on my upper limit. I always over-budget restoration time so I never come behind. That way the customer gets a nice surprise if something was less than I had budgeted for and I avoid having to revise a quote for additional work. Also, never take customers for granted or become patronising or forget that you and your customer are essentially negotiating over money in their pocket. Especially when dealing in luxury goods or discretionary items – however hard you are working for that money in your client’s pocket, never forget that they might have had to work a great deal harder before they decided to approach you. One of my horses came from a lady who saved up for it by digging graves in her spare time. 
(I know this is more than one biggest fail)

What is the one word you would use to describe yourself as a child?

If you really knew me, you’d know …
How tough I can be on myself and if I love something I can talk about it till I get hungry.

What kind of impact do you think you have on clients?
Well there’s a wide range of clients and reasons they come to me but you get the odd one, even fully grown men, who shed a tear when they get their rocking horse. They’re full of longing which is impossible to explain, but it’s very real and very powerful. I think that maybe the rocking horses are a bit of an antidote to the fast-paced lives we live, their simplicity and the time that goes into them is in such contrast to everything available instantly. I sometimes wonder if having to wait for them and go through the process of restoration is somehow comforting to people after everything else being such a rush.

What are you like when you’re stressed?
Crabby, snappy, withdrawn, I eat scary amounts of chocolate and my husband thinks he’s in trouble when he’s not. 

What are you like when you’re relaxed?
Affectionate, energetic, plenty of time to get something done, happy, very aware of how lucky I am and quite productive. 

Apart from work, what do you love about your life right now?
The sense that everything I ever wanted is here. My husband and I met in our late 30’s and everything fell into place. We have a cheerful home full of love, a happy boy, and a happy family. It’s amazing to have the freedom that I can do something from home that isn’t based on financial need and I can be the mum to my son that I want to be. We have enough and no need for more. 

All images provided by Sasha Douglas.

If you enjoyed reading about Sasha's career, here's a link for more interviews from people who love their work.

and a big thank you to Jon Kingston for introducing me to wonderful Sasha.