So, You really want to be a woodcarver?
The State of Woodcarving in America Today
The Baby Steps
My own personal journey with woodcarving took wings in 2002. After sustaining an injury, and being forced to endure long endless hours of boredom, I found myself with a piece of wood in one hand and a knife in the other. Little did I know then that I was embarking on the journey of my lifetime. As the monks in their monasteries, I worked in silent determination down in my small basement workshop and produced a few rudimentary carvings. I will even give myself credit, saying that they were recognizable figures.
But I wasn’t happy, and the artist in me knew that I could do better, that I could create something which would match my minds vision. And I set about to do just that. I didn’t know that this would entail selling my soul. Sell my soul; I did, instantly, completely and blindly. I immersed myself in this endeavor. I spent my every spare cent on the next must-have tool or accessory. My family balked at the amount of time that they perceived I preferred to spend without them. I became addicted to the computer, doing endless searches on carving topics, scouring the net for inspiration for my next carving. I even humbled myself to clandestinely drive around on trash day, looking for usable wood. One can assume that there was something missing inside of me, a void that carving came into and filled, and a true passion that overshadowed everything else that I had attempted to do in my life.
My early carvings were all done with a single knife
Being out of work brings with it an immense amount of time with no structure to it. My father, who had recently retired, and I had many conversations about how the excess of time actually caused one to become less productive with their time. When I used to get up at 5:45 to be at work at 7am, it was a routine to instantly get up when the alarm clock rang, to shower, dress and attend to other household chores and then to finally head out the door, usually carrying the garbage with me. In the fifteen minutes of puttering around the house, before I left, I could get an enormous amount of little things done, rushing around, taking care of this or that. Once at work, thoughts sometimes turned to the things I needed to do when I arrived home for the day and as soon as I got home I would set about doing all the things I had scheduled for myself. Days off and vacations were spent shopping or doing larger chores around the house. Somehow, with little free time on my hands, everything found a way to get done. Yet it was a stressful life, something always needing attention. Never enough time or money, but yet somehow keeping one’s head above the water. I always felt that procrastination was one of the biggest problems in my life, the theory of time management was just a creative ideal but not applicable in the real world. The purpose of deadlines is to let you know its time to do whatever it is that you’ve been putting off. And that is how I lived, doing just what needed to be done, when it needed to get done.
Early example of design, form follows function.
And then, with the wave of a magic wand, for no apparent reason, I trip on a set of stairs one day. My foot gets caught up under me and next thing I know I’m in the hospital being prepped for surgery. I have shattered one bone and fractured the other, in my lower leg and had a total dislocation of my ankle, just to further complicate things. After 3 days spent in a morphine haze, I finally got to go home and lay in bed. So I laid in bed, watching TV until I was just about in a coma. Trying to read all those books I said that I would read one day. My only consolation in this miserable time was that I didn’t have to get up for work. I didn’t have to do much of anything.
Days started melting into each other and I was starting to feel a bit cut off from the world. Then I get a phone call on an ordinary evening. You know, “the phone call”. The world turned upside down, changing life as we know it forever phone call. It started with the normal ring of the receiver; I unsuspectingly reach for the phone. It is my dad and for one split second every thing is great, I’m talking to my Dad, who lives 2000 miles away, who I’ve been meaning to call. But then, slowly my brain starts to process what he is actually saying, my mom had a heart attack. Stop! Everything just stops, comes to a huge screeching skid and smacks right into the brick wall. Switch on the auto pilot, make reservations. Wheelchair, cast, walker and me jumping on a plane and flying off to Florida. It was no small feat as it came on the heels of the 911 attacks. An airplane was the last place this New Yorker wanted to be. I had watched with my own eyes, from the north shore of Staten Island as those majestic towers fell, instantly knowing that thousands of people were being crushed in the rubble. But family is family and love would overcome fear. I would fly down to Florida a month later again to arrange my mother’s funeral and spend some time with my dad. My mother was only 59 when she died. This hit home and hit hard. I thought it terrible that she never got to grow old, never got to retire and spend the money that she had been saving all her life. She never got to have the time to do the things that she enjoyed doing. It made me appreciate that each day that we get is a gift to be cherished.
Woodburning of my Mom
Life became a little clearer to me after my mothers passing. It made all the days that I will be granted on this earth just a little more precious. Where before I was just living each day trying to get by, trying to pay bills and see that those around me were taken care of, I understood that there was more to living than just day to day existence. There needed to be meaning. There needed to be passion.
Passion is a funny thing, what stirs our interest and fuels our fires is different for each individual. As in the affairs of the heart, I do believe there is love at first sight. Why is it that in one instant we can feel closer to someone we’ve recently met, than to people we’ve been around all our lives. What is the magnetism which attracts two souls to each other? Fate? Kismet? I can honestly tell you that I don’t understand why woodcarving became the focus of my life. Who knows why some like NASCAR and others prefer ballet? Why did I pick up a piece of wood and a knife that spring day and instantly feel a connection. How did I know that my life had changed at that moment? And why did such an off-the-beaten-path-type of thing as woodcarving, grab me the way it did?
I found myself totally consumed by carving. Obsessed. When I wasn’t actually carving, I was designing, or reading or thinking about my next carving. I was searching the internet for information and ordering carving woods from internet suppliers. I spent every free moment over the next two years carving, by myself, mostly late at night.
This Greenman was my first carving using specialized carving tools. It is a joy to work with quality tools.
I finally reached a point in this process where I could say that I had learned the craft of woodcarving. I had learned about wood, its structure, its properties, and its beauty. I had learned how to choose wood, how to cut wood, how to join wood. I learned about grain direction and how to get wood to do what I wanted it to. I learned about tools and the hardness and strength of different steels. I learned how to sharpen and hone my tools. And I learned which tool to use, when and how. I learned about sanding and finishing and presentation. I emerged from my basement workshop a capable carver, secure that my new found knowledge would serve to produce better and better carvings. It seemed the more time and energy I granted to this obsession, it rewarded me with ever increasing admiration from those closest to me. For a moment in time I was happy just being the resident artist in the house, but soon the big world outside began whispering my name. I was restless and needed to take the next step on my woodcarving journey. Due to my injury, I knew that I would never be able to return to my previous physically active job and realized I would spend the rest of my life sitting at a desk in some dingy office somewhere unless I did something about it. I began thinking about a career change, knowing that people who did things that they loved for a living were for the most part, happier and more successful than the nine to fivers that worked to enhance someone else’s wallet. I was going to be a woodcarver. I was excited about the coming days and years.
My little Scotty was the first carving that I thought good enough to be given away. I sent him unannounced to my aunt Kathy because she had encouraged my artistic side as a child.
Before I began carving, I considered it to be a quaint art which belonged to a time long ago and far away. My research had told me about the great periods in history when woodcarvers were sought after by kings and nobilities, when carvers were acclaimed as one the highest form of artists. There were woodcarvers that sacrificed their entire lives to dedicate themselves to one or two majestic royal carvings. They survived on their patron’s generous support. In pre-modern times it was the craftsmen who were held in the highest esteem in a village. They commanded a hefty price for their work. There were no plastics being molded then, nor were there any slap together pre-fab manufacturers. If something needed to be created, people turned to the blacksmith and woodcarver to design and make the item. It was an art passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, keeping alive a tradition of carving techniques. The more I learned of the importance of woodcarving to the development of man, the prouder I was to be considering myself a woodcarver. I began calling myself a woodcarver despite the occasional quizzical looks I received. In some strange way I was lonely, and stunted in my carving development. Where were all the other woodcarvers, I wondered. I imagined that just by sheer percentages there had to be other people in this world, as I, sitting in the solitude of their homes, carving wonderful items. I needed to find those people. I needed to learn from them, I needed to talk to them. I needed to watch them work.
In all my life, I had never met a woodcarver. I had only heard of them through children’s stories and fairy tales. I looked in the yellow pages and found there was no one listed as Woodcarver. I went to my local, worldly acclaimed cultural art center and picked up all of their pamphlets and course offering literature. There was no mention of woodcarving. Why was there no mention of carving anywhere? I lived in New York City, the Rome of its time, the art and business capital of the modern world. Where would one go if they needed the services of a woodcarver? Did anyone still need the service of a woodcarver? Was it really a dead art? It was alive and well in my life and I just had to believe that it was out there somewhere.
My first venture into carving beyond the walls of my house was through the internet. I found a few email posting sites that were strictly carving related and as much as I was concerned about personal security, my need to connect was stronger. I joined a few different lists and a new world opened up for me. I found American and International carvers. Quite a few were professional carvers. I found spirited discussions about various aspects of woodcarving and its applications. I burst onto the internet list scene with all my enthusiasm and was welcomed by other carvers. Finally I had someone who would be happy to listen to my ramblings, who could relate to my feelings and who could discuss woodcarving on my own level. I asked for advice and was given more than I could have hoped for. I was receiving the best free on-line educational experience that I never imagined and it was right there at my finger tips.
While I thought it was an end to itself, the internet lists were just the first stepping stone. I learned about The National Association of Wood Carvers, and now, considering I called myself a woodcarver, I felt it vital that I join and become a card carrying member. It was a nominal fee with the added bonus of a carving magazine subscription. When I received my first issue, I was in heaven. I gingerly leafed through the pages, drooling over magnificent carvings on every page. I also stopped in at my local national chain bookstore and imagine my surprise to find other carving magazines on display. I slowly gave up most forms of entertainment to devote to reading carving books and magazines. I was also having great luck on eBay finding interesting used carving books at greatly reduced prices. My library began overflowing the space I had set aside for it and I actually had to clean out part of the basement to make more room for it. My next discovery was free on-line photo posting sites. I began an album and directed the carvers on the lists to take a look and most took the time to do just that.
It was wonderful to be able to share my photos with other carver’s. They heaped praise and encouragement on me but the critiques were what I really paid attention to. Here I was, an unknown novice carver receiving advice from professional carvers. My work took another step up in quality. But, there is only so much detail which could be viewed in the pictures, especially since I was not a very good photographer. Pictures cannot convey the feeling of a carving. It will never be the same as holding something in your hand. Other internet list members directed me to check their sites out and I did. I tried to encourage other new carvers and was inspired by those who had been carving for years.
There were marvelous carvings being produced, quietly in basements and workshops all over America. A lot of the carvings were what I would consider folk arts. There were bottle stoppers and bolo ties, chainsaw carvings, walking sticks, gourd carvings, chip carving and caricatures. But there was also a lot of high quality art, beautiful reliefs, Native American busts and sculptures, museum quality fish and bird carvings. In my own carvings, I tried to do a little bit of everything, whatever struck my fancy at the time. I started to wonder if there was any money to be made from carving. There was one constant piece of advice that I was given quite often by other carvers. In order to be financially successful, a carver had to find his or her own niche. Just how does one go about that, I wondered. How do you disregard other styles of carving and settle on only one? I started taking notes on the different styles of carvings that were out there. And I came to the conclusion that there were all different types of woodcarvers. There were bird carvers, fish carvers and wildlife carvers. There were those who only carved western items and Native American busts. There were carvers who focused on caricatures and there were stick carvers. There were carousel cavers. There were stylized carvers and fine art sculptors. There were religious carvings and fireplace mantle carvings. There was architectural carving and fine restorative carvings.
Where exactly would my carvings fit into the larger carving world? I had been doing an extensive and varied amount of carving. I had carved reliefs on all different subjects, low reliefs and high reliefs. I had carved decorative moldings and wall hangings for my home. I had carved fruits and floral designs. I had done a few religious carvings as commission work. I had carved Indian busts and green men, wood spirits and gnomes. I had carved fantasy carvings and humorous in the round carvings. And I had carved more than a few signs and plaques. In between all this carving, I was doing scroll saw fret work and pyrographic woodburnings. And I was beginning to incorporate them into my carvings. It seemed I was all over the place with my carving in the first few years. This actually was to my advantage as it gave me the skills to produce competent carvings of any sort, for my own purposes or for items that others requested. But what kind of carver was I? Where was my niche?
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