SOWC Chapter 5

The State of Woodcarving in America Today

Chapter 5

I Call Myself a Woodcarver

Lately I have started calling myself a woodcarver and in calling myself that, I have changed.  I am becoming more who I was supposed to be.  I walk a little taller and prouder even if my clothing is covered with woodchips from time to time. I consider the woodchips to be a conversation starter. It does not matter that most people have no interest in what I am doing and that some would even seem to think I am just wasting my time.  Every now and then I meet someone who is fascinated by the fact that I have chosen to dive into a woodcarving career.  These are the people that I love talking to.  My enthusiasm translates itself to them and I can see in their eyes when I have sparked their curiosity.

I believe that the future of woodcarving is directly proportionate to the amount of people that each carver can introduce to woodcarving.  Whether as a carving instructor, a talkative salesman or just a helpful soul, it is imperative that we as woodcarvers and sculptors attempt to reach out to the public.  From a historical perspective we should willingly seek to pass our woodcarving knowledge and techniques to the next generation.  It is a continuing tradition since the dawn of man.  There is much knowledge which has been lost over the ages. There are ancient metal forgings that we still don’t understand, weaving techniques that are mysteries. There are obsolete languages that we can’t decipher.  There is ancient glassware that we can not reproduce.  Just as certain as there are species of endangered animals disappearing everyday, there is specialized knowledge also falling into oblivion.

I cannot call myself a woodcarver if I don’t carve, so that is my foremost mission.  Just why I started to carve is a mystery even to me.  My closest family and friends have approached me with the question of why I choose woodcarving.  The honest answer is simple, I really don’t know.  I look back on the first time I held a knife next to a piece of wood.  It was at a time when I knew no other carvers and don’t even believe that I had ever seen a woodcarving demonstration.  But there I was, whittling away.  It was in those first few moments that my life changed forever.  A passion was born and a fire developed. 

You must understand me to understand the enormous effect woodcarving had on my life.  I have been a lazy individual for the most part.  I have never had any real drive or ambition. My first jobs were basically doing anything that would make me some pocket money.  I helped a neighbor stuff envelopes, I helped friends with their paper routes, I made signs for local neighborhood businesses and I restored a few pieces of furniture for friends. I graduated high school and started college with idea of becoming an architect.

 I loved the art history and drafting classes but I quickly gave up the idea when confronted with the math and physics that was involved with becoming an architect.  I got my first real job because my mother decided it was time for me to pay my fair share in the house.  She called me up one morning and told me where and when to show up.  I did.  I was trained to be a darkroom technician in an x-ray dept at the local hospital.  Hospital salaries were generous in those days and with overtime I was making more money than any of my friends. However as automation began taking over the x-ray industry, I knew that my job would not last forever. A friend then suggested that we both go and receive EMT training.  We did and I received my license a few months later.  After doing a month long internship in the emergency room of a hospital, I decided that the job was not for me.

 I learned that I really didn’t care for blood and other body fluids that much.  Someone suggested that I go and take the test for a job in the post office.  I did.  And I did particularly well.  I never seemed to have a problem taking those tests that you didn’t have to study for.  Most civil service tests are like that, some general math and English questions.  The post office test also had a lot of memorization.  I don’t know why my brain worked so well that morning but it did and I scored in the top 1%.  A few months later I received a notice telling me that I was being hired  as a letter carrier in Manhattan.  Off I went, delivering mail in the canyons of skyscrapers in the big city.  For a young person, it was a good job, even exciting.  I loved the hustle and bustle of the city swirling all around me.  The post office offered a generous starting salary with a full compliment of benefits.  It was a great job for someone as unambitious as me.  All I had to do was show up each day.  Well I did have to work, but it didn’t seem so bad.

Eventually I got married and a few years later learned that I was pregnant and would have to go on light-duty at work.  The light duty shift at the post office was mid-night to eight in the morning.  I couldn’t picture myself, eight or nine months pregnant traveling to the big city each night, so I handed in my resignation and took a job for less money, as a medical assistant much closer to home.  After my son was born, I stayed home to raise him until he started school.  But the plan did not go smoothly and a few years later I found myself on my own, with a child to support, without a decent job.  Again I took the post office test.  Again I did well and was told I was being hired on Staten Island.  Staten Island, though a suburb of the city, was a whole different world from Manhattan.  Where Manhattan was full of level streets and elevators, Staten Island was full of hills and steps.  Knowing I needed a way to support myself and my son, I forced myself to go into work each day.  My now 30 year old body balked at this endeavor and I somehow stuck it out but as year after year came and went, my body protested more and more.  I hated going to work after a while.  The physical challenge was wearing me down, but the mental challenge was even worse.  I had always been a creative soul of sorts.  Delivering mail was as far from creative as anything could get.  Mailmen are almost robots, with our entire day prescribed for us.  We have no input and carry out the same ritual, sorting mail for endless hours, loading our trucks and then delivering the same route in the same manner and order, day after day. With a shortage in staff, overtime was usually mandatory and on days when the post office didn’t deliver, Sundays and holidays, we were rewarded with double the mail and double the work waiting for us when we returned. 

It is strange that I would look upon a catastrophe as a blessing, but tripping on the stairs and breaking my ankle was a defining moment in my life.  It gave me time to think.  All those hours lying in bed after the surgery were full of contemplation.  I was tired of drifting in my life, of having no sure direction to go in.  My mothers’ early passing brought life into even a sharper focus.  Complications developed with my injury and I knew that I would never go back to delivering mail.  Now over 40, the months of inactivity took a toll on my physical strength.  But mentally, a whole new world was about to open up.

 Let’s go back to that first moment when I held a knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other.  I wish I could remember what thoughts immediately proceeded that moment, but there I was, making that first cut.  Quiet determination came out of somewhere and I completed my little carving.  I can not tell you the feelings that came over me then. Of course there were the feelings of pride and accomplishment as I showed off my first creation.  I had been painting and drawing off and on over the years.  I had done murals, I had made clay figures but never before had I encountered the feelings I was having.  Never had anything changed me the way woodcarving did.  I was instantly a woodcarver.  I had the strangest feeling that carving was what I was supposed to have been doing my whole life.  Was it the peacefulness it brought to my soul?  Was it the solitude of carving that settled me?  Was it the mode of artistic expression that I had been seeking all my life?  Was it that I finally felt useful again?  Whatever it was, it just was. I was a woodcarver.

Me and my grandfather 1968

In truth, I had actually made my first carving many, many years ago, in my grandfathers’ shed.  I was about 8 or 9 years old. I carved a small bust of my grandfather.  I must have done a decent job because people knew who it was when they looked at it. If I had only had a little direction and guidance then, who knows where I would have been today.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to go through all those years of real working.  Then again, if it didn’t happen exactly the way it did, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened at all.  Age and experience bring with them perspective.  Had I at anytime consciously thought about being a woodcarver, I would have immediately discarded the idea.  Who ever heard of someone growing up to become a woodcarver?  Who even thought about it being a viable career path?  Maybe out in some little rural town, but certainly not in New York City, and definitely not in the 21st century.  And to top it off I was a woman.  When I thought about woodcarving, the only person who came to mind was Geppetto from Pinocchio.   But there was nothing and no one who could dissuade me from the idea of being a woodcarver. 

I thought for the first time in my life about such things as destiny and fate.  I also finally understood what people meant when they talked about drive, purpose and passion.  All I knew was that something happened that had never happened before and I became a whole different person over night.  I couldn’t wait to wake up each day.  From the moment I began, I lived, ate and slept carving.  It became a part of me and it began consuming more and more of my life, until there was no doubt about it, I was now a woodcarver.  But what kind of woodcarver would I be?  I was definitely out of the mainstream, where carving is concerned.  I think that there are three types of clearly defined carvers.  The first is the educated artist, who has degrees in art and perhaps marketing.  I include in this category carvers who have been trained in the European guild system, those who have served an apprentice program under a Master Carver, and those for whom professional carving is a family tradition.  There are the hobbyist carvers who generally take-up carving in their retirement years. These carvers make up the overwhelming majority of the carvers who attend weekly and monthly carving club meetings. The third category of carvers is those who carve only with financial motives in mind.  They can carve full-time or part-time but see carving as a means to an end.  They carve strictly what is marketable.  They do not generally connect themselves to the greater community of woodcarvers and only seek to perfect their carving in order to be efficient enough to return a decent profit for their time.  There are many different combinations of these basic types of carvers. 

            I have no formal training, although I have taken many art and art history courses.  I am not at retirement age yet but at 44 my gray hair is competing for dominance over my brown hair and is likely winning.  I’m not looking for any huge financial gain at this time though may in the future.  At present, I am more concerned with gaining the knowledge and experience that is necessary to become a respected carver among the carving community itself.  I do consider myself an artist first and foremost.  I have always needed an outlet for my creativity.  I have been a painter, an almost architect, a poet and a writer and a restorer of furniture.  I have created art for money but have given away the vast majority to family and friends.  I have never relied on art for my income, and have always held down a full-time job.  I can’t tell you what is different about woodcarving.  I can’t tell you why it ignited such a passion in me.  Why for the first time in my life do I actually feel motivated?  In three short years, I have produced more than all of my working years combined.

            I am a woodcarver.  And it has changed me.  My confidence level has soared.  I now believe in myself and believe that I have something valuable worth sharing with others, something worth teaching to the next generations.  I cherish the tradition that I am helping to keep alive.  I also like knowing that I am doing something that most people aren’t doing and probably never will do.  The things that make us different are the things that make us interesting.  In most of my social groups and gatherings I can be fairly sure that I am the only woodcarver in the room.  I am never at a loss for something to talk about, not only about woodcarving itself but about the endless subjects I have researched for my various projects.  I like that producing items in wood is an ancient and honored craft and that in some primal way, it connects me to mans evolution and to the earth itself.  I like that I am finally living as the artist that I always dreamed I would be.  And no matter where my journey ends up at least I feel I am doing what I was meant to do.

            Certain aspects of my personality are called into play in woodcarving.  I have for the most part, always been a quiet contemplative soul which suits me well in the small hours of the evening alone down in my shop.  I have always had a thirst for knowledge and love doing the research required for my commission carvings.  There is no way to anticipate what the next commission carving subject will be so it is a constant quest for knowledge. I have put this hunger to work for me and in 3 short years of carving, I have listened, watched and learned more than most people learn in their lifetimes.  I have a natural drawing ability, not good enough to be a sketch artist but I am not afraid to take pencil to wood to layout guidelines. I have also had drafting training which works well when laying out lettering and chip carving patterns. I have always loved getting dirty and working with my hands.  I am also a non-traditional woman and feel suited to this type of work as a way to express who I am. 

            My greatest personal attribute which has contributed the most to my becoming a woodcarver is that I have no fear (alright, I’m afraid of slimy things and my son getting hurt playing football but not much else).  I have no fear of rejection and can readily and proudly show my work.  I am not afraid to try a new technique and am not afraid to push myself to my limits.  I am not afraid to approach a more talented carver and ask them what I wish to know.  I am not afraid to whack off huge chunks of wood using chisels and mallets.  I am also not afraid to carve in unconventional manners and at times I prescribe to the “anything that works” method.  I am not afraid to dive into things that may be beyond my scope of knowledge.  When those things work out they are often considered my latest masterpieces.  I love when someone tells me that I won’t be capable of doing something, it then becomes my life’s work until I have completed it.  Having no fear is of greatest benefit to a commission carver.  Most of the subjects of my commissions have been subjects I have never dealt with before.  I feel that if you present yourself as a commission carver,  you need to be able to produce anything that a paying customer wishes.  And you need the confidence to be able to do it well. Your reputation is extremely important if you wish to get other commissions from the same source again.

            I definitely feel that fear holds a lot of carvers back.  I have watched people whittle away at something for hours when they could have removed the same amount of wood with a few decisive, well placed cuts.  I also feel that the longer a carving takes to complete, the more chance that you will lose your enthusiasm for it and it will become real work.  When it is no longer fun and interesting, it becomes more of a struggle to complete a carving and the longer it takes, the less of yourself you can afford to put into it.  Speed of carving can be any carvers’ greatest asset.  Proper tools and proper techniques are all important here.  Time and practice will bring about the required results.  I consider each and every carving I do, practice for other carvings that I will do in the years to come.  I try new techniques directly on carvings all the time and have not messed one up yet.  I feel that mistakes can always be new opportunities and have never trashed a carving yet.  Not even my early carvings.  I have loved them for what they were, first attempts.  I look back upon them now as a way to gauge just how far I have come.  I look at other artists fine carvings as an example of where I would like to go with my carving.  

            My biggest detriment to being a woodcarver is that I wasn’t born knowing that this is what I would be doing for the rest of my life.  I would have guided my life is such a way as to be welcoming to woodcarving.  But as it is I’ve had to try to fit carving into my life, though it is hard.  My house is ill-suited for carving and the only space I have at present is a third of my basement which I share with the furnace and washer and dryer. It is hot in the summer, sometimes so hot that I lose my enthusiasm for a few weeks, while praying for fall. My car is older now and I’m not relying on it as much as I once did, although I wish I had a nice truck or RV to travel around the country to different woodcarving venues.  For now I must stick a bit closer to home, knowing that I am missing out on meeting a lot of fabulous carvers and other resources.

Chapter 6


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