Etsy Journal

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Featured Shop: The Ancient Muse

by Aleksa Brown

Feb 24, 2016

This maker's passion for wood carving was sparked when she discovered a 2,000-year-old olive tree at an archaeology dig in Turkey.

"I am a romantic who loves history and unknown lands," says accessories designer Isil Akalan Gunduz of The Ancient Muse. Hailing from Izmir, Turkey, Isil studied archaeology at university; now she spends her days sketching designs for her accessory line and carving locally-sourced and semi-precious wood. So what magical discovery took Isil from working as an archaeologist to carving fantastical wooden hair combs and accessories? We got in touch to find out.
How did you learn your craft? Are you self-taught, or did you take classes for woodworking in addition to studying archaeology? My father was an art teacher. He taught sculpture, graphic design, and art history. I grew up attending his classes from a young age. That's where my fascination with art history and archaeology comes from. Eventually, I started drawing designs from my imagination: princesses, kings, and other fictional characters. Even though arts and crafts were my passion, my father didn't think I could earn money that way, so I pursued archaeology instead. Then one day when I was on an excavation in Turkey, we found a 2000-year-old olive tree. It was a rare find because usually trees are only preserved under special conditions. I immediately fell in love with the tree's twists and turns; so, I went back to France (where I was living at the time) and started carving wood. It was surprising how naturally this craft came to me. I felt like I had been doing it my whole life! And for the first time, I was taking things from my imagination and making them real. It was magical.
Where do you create? When I started The Ancient Muse, I was living and working from my apartment in Bordeaux, France. After a few years, I decided that I needed a bigger place, so I moved back to Turkey, where I'm from. Now I have an attic workshop with a terrace. What is your process like? I spend hours getting into my imaginary world and sketching designs. Then I look at my wood supply and find a special wood for each design. Next I cut the wood, and start hand carving and sanding. The last step is choosing a finish.

How long does it take you to make a single piece? Depending on the motif, it can take anywhere from four days to two weeks to finish a design. It can be difficult to see the weak parts of the wood, so sometimes things fall apart while I'm working on them, and I have to start over. When I'm finished with a piece, I run strength tests on the item so I know my  customers are getting something strong and well-made. Do you have a favorite piece in your shop? I love my circle horse sticks and also my dragon pieces.

What are your favorite materials to work with? I love working with ebony wood because when it's finished, it's smooth like marble and the carvings appear very well. What inspires you? I've always loved the world of J. R. R. Tolkien. I studied archaeology in England so Celts, Vikings, Romans and elves have a very important place in my imagination. I am also fascinated with Asia: I love traditional Japanese, South Korean and Chinese art and fashion history.

What does Etsy mean to you? Etsy means a lot to me – this is where I started my design journey. Apart from being a marketplace, it's also a community. When I was first starting out, I was unsure about a lot of things, but I joined some Etsy Teams and met new artists online and where I was living. They helped me grow. What are your goals for the future? I really want to establish The Ancient Muse as a well-known accessories brand for men, women, and children. All photographs courtesy of The Ancient Muse.  

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Aleksa Brown

Aleksa Brown is a writer, editor, and brand storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. Some of her favorite things include burgers, bike rides, and being outside with friends on sunny days. Read more of her work on the Etsy Journal.