Rocking Horse Man Crafts Old School Toys To Give Philippine Prisoners New Hope
This week I came across a truly inspirational man. Chris Woolcock is an Australian master craftsman, whose carved wooden rocking horses have received international acclaim and now fund what he calls “his most important work” – teaching his skill to prison inmates in Bilibid prison, Philippines.
Chris sells his beautiful rocking horses to clients all over the world. They have become collectors’ items, family heirlooms and exhibition pieces, having been displayed in London and New York, with one of his prize pieces currently on show at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. He has even been the subject of Australia’s prestigious Archibald Prize.
Chris started his career at an early age when he learned the art of woodcarving from his grandfather and developed a lifelong love of making wooden toys.
On leaving school, Chris trained to become a teacher and while working in a primary school in the early 1970s, he had a group of children who needed specially built toys. With few resources available to him, he decided to make his own educational aids for handicapped children on a small commercial scale. Some time later he then went to the UK and taught disadvantaged children in the East End.
Chris’s award-winning, exquisite rocking horses are the epitome of classic, timeless toys. They are pieces of art in their own right and a mark of a true artisan.
His passion is more about teaching and passing on his skills than taking acclaim for his pieces. In Australia he runs classes on making rocking horses for would-be craftsmen/ women people interested in learning a new skill.
When he started his own business, Woolcock Toys (which then became Renaissance Rocking Horses), in 1982, he employed handicapped and special needs people as his way of giving back to the community and helping those in need.
Following a trip to the Philippines, Chris embarked on his most important teaching assignment to date: teaching prisoners in Bilibid prison life skills to give them a craft and new hope for the future.
Chris has been teaching in maximum security prison, Bilibid for almost three years. He spends on month in three “inside”, teaching prisoners the skill of woodcarving. He built his own workshop in the prison and uses the sale of his rocking horses to fund his teaching.
He has now rented a small house for himself and loves the different life he lives in the Philippines.
“I travel by tricycle each day to work, through wonderful green countryside. It’s not overcrowded or polluted like Manila and there are lots of open spaces, chickens, ducks, goats, caribou and even turkeys wandering around! Mango, coconut and banana trees line the streets and the food is cheap and fresh.”
Chris’s secretary, Liezel and her father, a retired soldier, also work in the prison with Chris. She and her family move into his house when Chris is in Australia:
“Liezal’s mum has started a garden in the yard. Soon we will have chickens, although I said no to getting a pig”, laughs Chris.
The inmates at Bilibid really appreciate Chris and take a huge interest in him, which can be a little awkward at times! “It’s sometimes embarrassing when I am in the prison”, says Chris. “I’m treated like royalty and the boys cannot do enough for me and call me Sir Christopher! They carry my bag and have the slightly uncomfortable habit of holding an umbrella over my head when I am outside!”
But his work is incredibly rewarding and he is very fond of “his boys”:
“I simply love what I do”, says Chris. “I enjoy my work, love sharing my talents and simply get a kick out of giving my boys (the prisoners) a new start in life, through skills remission on their sentence and a trade qualification.”
All Renaissance rocking horses are made from first (furniture) grade, knot free, New Zealand Radiata Pine. The wood comes from well managed forests, independently certified in accordance with the rules of the Forest Stewardship Council.
To find out more about him and his work and view the current selection of rocking horses, go to http://www.rockinghorses.com.au/.