How Mara got her wood carving groove on.

Soon after her 40th birthday, in November 2014, Tamara Harding woke up and had an eureka moment. She wanted to design and create things out of wood. A year later, she launched Mara Made Designs, in Kingston, Jamaica, selling over one hundred unique items. To this day, she continues to carve exquisite pieces out of trees, all of which are etched with her “Mara” signature.

Whether you sit at a Café Blue table, park yourself on a private client’s garden bench or admire her countless creations on her social media accounts, you might find it difficult to believe that Mara came up with the idea of this immense project overnight. But as MACO recently discovered, she did not simply wake up with a wish and magically have it granted. Four decades have led Mara to where she is now.

Her wild, childhood imagination of constructing entire towns for her dolls, her innate common sense and experience in administration, advertising, project management and making mosaics, have all clearly contributed to the product of today.  Mara has toiled to get where she is and she is always working.  “I take Sundays off, though, as I have to get into a body of water.  It grounds me and re-energises me.  If it’s raining, I’ll go into the mountains,” she told us.  “If I am on a tight deadline, I’ll set the men up from Saturday and they’ll get on with it,” Mara clarified.  Make no mistake, Mara chops, hauls, carves and drills the wood herself.  “I bought my first chainsaw in January 2015 and spent the six months salvaging wood,” she advised.

What exactly is salvaged wood?  When land is cleared for construction or farming, the felled trees are saved and used to create something.  Not to be confused with reclaimed wood, which is taking a wooden object and making something else from it.  Harding uses salvaged trees, but, she explained:  “I want to get the call before they clear the land, so that I can cut the trees the way I want.  I keep the wood in its natural state, working around the nuances of the wood, like the holes and the knots.  Sometimes I make a piece, such as a table with glass on it, then realise it would make a cool chandelier, so I take it off the ground and put it in the air,” she explained. 

I bear the expense of it all – chainsaw, back hoe, excavator, crane, flatbed truck, wrecker, labour, whatever I need to spend to get the job done,” she continued, it’s an extraordinarily expensive endeavour for someone who has no investors and no loans.

The overheads don’t stop there, as the wood must be debarked, cleaned up, leveled off, dried and fumigated every three months until it’s ready to be used.  “At the moment, I send every piece off to be heat-treated in a kiln that’s configured to kill termites, which takes three hours.  I would like to buy two kilns, one to kill the termites and the other configured to dry out wood, which takes three months, versus naturally drying it out for one to three years, depending on the thickness and density of the wood.  I’m also looking for a warehouse and I’m setting up my second workshop in Ocho Rios,” she divulged, obviously not letting the daunting expenditure defer her determination.

The desire for expansion stems from Harding’s growing ambition, which is to have a 20-year supply of trees at any given time.  To do this, she must establish relationships with the government agencies and private companies that are key to procuring trees.  “I’m working on negotiating for the trees that will have to come down to build the highways going to St Thomas and Montego Bay,” she revealed.

Mara’s current workshop is in her Kingston home, where she and her husband of 21 years have grown two daughters, the same house in which she grew up.  Her front yard, however, bears no resemblance to the stereotypical lumber yard, but is rather a neat exhibit of sculpted art.  This compliments the interior, which is a dichotomy of wild nature tamed by a minimalistic artist, as she has designed and built poignant pieces, from huge trees, for the wall of her front hall and for the every day use of her family and friends. There are no gaudy adornments, while Mara’s tastes stand out loudly.

Mara’s ligneous creations, 90 per cent of which are commissioned, range from grand dining tables and chandeliers, to doors and light shades.  “I love commissions, as they stretch my portfolio.  I get to feed off the energy of clients, as they talk to me, and then they leave me be,” Mara confidently revealed. Her mantra is, “no wood left behind,” meaning, “If I have the back end of a tree trunk, after using the middle of the tree for seating, I’ll make a bench out of it, or if it’s too small, then I’ll make a bowl.  I’ll also make bracelets and rings.” As she was explaining, she excitedly brought out some of her merchandise to show what she meant.  “I made these spoons and cheeseboards and put on leather straps,” she continued, enthusiastically.

Harding is not about to waste one wood chip, which not only demonstrates her ability to envision countless possibilities, but also shows great business acumen, a necessity as she continues forward.  She has aspirations of educating Jamaican carpenters and carvers in the near future and exposing them to new possibilities in the work of experienced experts abroad.  Her wish is to bring these experts to her beloved island and have them train her fellow Jamaicans.  “I need more capable wood carvers, so that I can meet the demand for Mara Made Designs,” Mara mentioned.  Everything about Jamaica motivates Mara.  “There is a vortex of energy on this island, which I feel and feed off,” she divulged.  In fact, being a Jamaican is the only label that this wood whisperer will allow for herself.


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