The Artist

MAURA MACALUSO

A reflection on my 10 year carving anniversary.

    How do we become who we are meant to be? In my case I did not decide to become a woodcarver. My first few woodcarvings just happened. In fact at the time, I didn’t know that traditional woodcarvers existed anymore.

On an annual June family reunion to Cape May in 2000, my Uncle Bill told me about a creation that a friend had given his family. It was the same subject, a leaf, I believe, repeated 3 times in 3 different mediums. One of the mediums used was wood. He spoke of the creation glowingly. I had always had an artistic bent coupled with the ego of an artist and remembered thinking to myself, ‘I could do that’. I filed the thought away in the underworld of my cluttered mind. That July, I turned 40 and it started a dialogue in my head. For the first time in my life, I really dealt with the issue of my own mortality. Was this my midlife? Were my days numbered, and the writing clearly on the wall? Or would I have many, many more days to waste away getting nowhere fast. There was no mid-life crisis, no therapy, no craziness on my part. It was a quiet yearning for something more, something that mattered, something that when I left this earth, I could be proud of leaving behind, an accomplishment that would mark my point of existence in history. What I knew then was that I felt unaccomplished and that did not sit well with me. I had no legacy to pass down to future generations, nothing to contribute to mankind. Besides passing my DNA down to my son, there would be nothing to say I had been here. Career-wise, I had been a sign maker, an x-ray darkroom technician, an x-ray developer repairman, a New York State EMT for a brief period, a restaurant worker and a US letter carrier. All of these were respectable occupations that sounded good when I started them but within a few short months or years, I knew that I would not want to spend my life doing any of them. To be honest, I was never ambitious. I was always happy with very little. If I could pay my bills, have money to live and a roof over my head, I was content. It had never been about money or fame.

Looking back on my life, the one thing that remained a constant was my art. I had doodled, drawn and painted since I was a young child and this slowly developing talent led to my first job at the age of 15 as a sign-maker for local businesses. Somehow, it wasn’t creative enough for me and I soon grew tired of it. I continued my art as a hobby, painting dungaree jackets and glass etching car windows and commission painting. I even made a few bucks from it, now and then. When I was 17, with high school graduation looming large, my mom asked me what I was going to do with myself. I didn’t give a moments pause and told her, “I’m going to be an artist”. What came next was one of the most hurtful things that ever happened to me, whether intentional or not. My mom laughed at me and said “Don’t be silly. That’s not a job, you will need a real job because when you turn 18, I will be charging you rent”. I was crushed, not because I might have to grow up but because my art was the one thing I could do that held any real meaning for me. My mother thought little of my art, which was such an integral part of who I was. I was mortally wounded.                                              

In retrospect, perhaps I should’nt have listened to her but a mothers view of a child holds a tremendous weight in any persons life. I never had any semblance of a good relationship with my mom, but was always looking for her approval, I went out into the world of working people, day after day, earning a living, only to regret it 20 years later. I know now that I should have been willing to sacrifice for my art, even if it meant doing without for a few years.       

 In early Sept. of 2001, my Uncle Bill, who had collected a few pieces of my drawings and paintings called on the phone. His son, my cousin, T. Kyle, who lived here on Staten Island had landed a job in the financial district in Manhattan. My uncle, who lived in Pennsylvania, asked me to make him a drawing or painting of something New York City related that he could put in his office to reflect this. We bantered ideas back and forth and we agreed that I would create something that had the Staten Island Ferry as its focus. I wrote it down and soon the scrap of paper became buried under other things and was forgotten for awhile.

A few weeks later on Sept. 11th, 2001, my world would turn and re-adjust its axis when I watched the Twin Towers collapse in front of me. What I remember of that morning was how beautiful and perfect a fall morning it was. The sky was crystal clear and a beautiful shade of blue. There were big puffy clouds floating around. The type of clouds that you lay down in the grass and look up at, imaging all types of things in them. The leaves were needing to be raked and it seemed like there was no better day for a bit of outside work. I had clipped my walkman to my pants, hung the headphones around my neck, and just as I walked down the steps to go outside, the phone rang. I continued out the door but having a young child in school, I turned back to answer it, in case it was some type of emergency. It was a friend of mine and the only thing she said was “hang up the phone and turn the TV on. I did as asked and saw that it was moments after the first plane struck the tower at the World Trade Center in downtown, which was now on fire.

How could that have happened?, I thought to myself and raced out into my car, grabbing my camera as I went. As I reached the north shoreline of Staten Island, the second plane hit the 2nd tower. I knew then that this was no accident. I was standing there taking pictures a while later when the first one collapsed. I have personal photos in time sequence of the event. As the first tower fell, all the wind rushed out of me, my legs weakened and quivered and I dropped to the ground on my knees. I understood that it was the moment when thousands of people died and were vaporized. Very little was left behind to even prove they ever existed. I felt it to my core. These were, for the most part, innocent working people who didn’t deserve to die. Interestingly enough, I had just read a study in which the results were, the number one regret that people have on their deathbeds is that they spent too much time working and not enough time enjoying life. As panic was all around me, I decided I needed to go get my son from school in case we were at war or something, only to find that my ex-husband who was much closer to the school had already picked him up. I eventually returned home, upset and not knowing what to do but knowing that I needed to stay calm until the world made sense again and I went down into the basement workshop in an effort to do something, anything to distract myself from the terrible events and rumors of the day. I came across the scrap of paper with the word ferry on it. I put it aside to do some thinking. what would I draw, what would I create. I looked around me and surprisingly there was a slab of pine sitting there. It was at that moment I knew what I would do. Recalling the conversation I had had with my uncle about the artwork he had been given, I decided I would carve a ferry into the wood. While I was laying out the design in pencil, it looked like a ferry floating in space so I needed to give it a back ground. There was no question in my mind that the background would be the Twin Towers in all their former glory. I finished the design and laid it aside.

In the fall of 2001 towards the end of September, I went on my annual vacation to Provincetown in Cape Cod, MA. It was my habit to bring something of a creative nature with me. I brought the slab of wood with me and my rotary tool with all its bits and attachments. There on the beachfront deck of our rented condo, I proceeded to shape the wood into a folk art depiction of the ferry. I eventually mailed it off to my uncle who loved it. Understand even though it was technically my first woodcarving, I did not consider it that. It was simply a drawing/painting of the ferry which had been shaped into a piece of wood.

A few months later, on Dec. 18th, now a letter carrier for many years, I would slip on a set of stairs. I severely dislocated and catastrophically broke my ankle. This would lead to many months the following year, spent having surgeries and living in a wheelchair with a huge heavy hard cast covering almost my entire leg. I spent a tremendous amount of time laying in bed, reading, watching TV and movies and playing video games until eventually a morose sense of long-term boredom set in.

At the end of January, 2002, I received a very distressing phone call from my dad in Florida, which would again tilt the axis of my world. My mom had suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. This was something so unexpected that it didn’t make much sense to me in the moment. My dad was older than her. Dads were supposed to die first in my naive view of the world. I packed a suitcase and caught the first plane I could manage to. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, in a cast, in a wheel chair, going through the post 911 airport security. I arrived in Tampa a day after the phone call only to be told that my mom was continuing to suffer a series of heart attacks and that the outlook was not promising. My mom was 59. This simply could not be happening. But it was.

The extended family gathered down in Florida for what would be an almost month long vigil. After 2 or three weeks, I returned to NY to attend to some work related business to apply for workers compensation. I was to return to Florida and my mom and dad shortly thereafter. But in the few days I was home, it happened almost as if I wasn’t meant to be there. On February 20th my mom passed away. This was a terrible time for me especially because we hadn’t resolved our personal issues with each other.

Except for a few moments of tears when I learned that she had passed and then again at the actual service, I was numb. I spent a few more days with my dad and our immediate family. When I returned home to New York after the funeral, I guess you could say I was in shock and did not feel much of anything. My concern for my dad was paramount but not much else mattered then. Each day led into the next. and eventually life went on as it always seems to do.

One day at the end of March 2002, when no one was home, I was utterly at the end of being able to handle my boredom. From my bedroom up on the second floor, still with the heavy cast on, I scooted myself on my butt, down two flights of stairs and into the basement where I had set up a small workbench under the stairs. I had done a lot of repair work in the house and I really enjoyed that. I wanted to do something, anything, to distract myself from the physical and emotional pain I was in. I realized after a few minutes that there wasn’t much I could do. Most of the tools were power tools which you needed to stand to use. I tried to go back upstairs, then learning how much easier it was to go down stairs rather than to go up. I sat there in pain and frustration and realized I would have to wait until someone came home to help me. That would be a few hours. I got myself up into a high swivel chair, looked around at what I could reach. I needed something to keep me busy. I saw a small block of wood and picked it up. I looked to the rack of hand-tools attached to the wall on my other side and I saw an old rusty utility knife. Now, I held a piece of wood in one hand and a knife in the other. I simply started whittling. I had a huge collections of penguins and I could picture a penguin in my head so I proceeded to use the knife to carve one.

My first carving The act of carving that day was therapy, mediation and resolution all through a little piece of wood. It was the most incredibly peaceful thing I had ever attempted, just me, the wood and a knife. In the middle of it, I broke down crying, the tears wouldn’t stop. I was finally crying for my mom, for all that I ever wanted for us, for her approval which I would never get, for all the words never spoken. I was crying for the loss of my beloved Twin Towers and a world which would never be innocent again. I was crying for the loss of my livelihood and the stability and financial security I had known up until that point. It was a terribly emotional afternoon. But even through the mist of the tears, my hands kept working. I wasn’t sure if it was my mom now giving me permission to continue my art or if I was doing my art, in spite of her, because she couldn’t laugh at me anymore. Whatever happened to me on that afternoon, I would never, ever be the same. I had finally found myself. And by the time I finished that little carving, I knew who I was and who I was meant to be. Eventually someone did come home and help me up the stairs and back into bed. I was clutching the penguin in my hand. They asked me what I was thinking going down into the basement. “This”, I proudly proclaimed and held my little penguin up for their approval. They said, “you didn’t make that”. And as I reassured them that I did, The next days plan was already forming in my head. I would carve again. The next carving was a series of ducks innocently swimming past a hollow log. A carving for my duck loving little boy. Unbeknownst to him, inside the hollow log I had carved a ready-to-strike snake in perfect position to snatch the littlest duckling, my own twisted sense of humor coming in to play. It was a lesson from his mom, to be careful in this world. From small beginnings, come great things. My life changed in so many ways. I had never found something which had ignited such a fire inside me. I carved day and night after that, started purchasing all the tools I would need and eventually understood that carving was how I would leave my mark on this world. In the last 10 years, I estimate I have done close to 1000 carvings, and have taught a few hundred people how to get started. I have written a book, I have gone on many carving journeys and met wonderful people along the way. I have made so many, many dear friends. I have woodcarvings in 23 countries on 4 continents now and even if just one of those carvings lasts beyond my lifetime, someday, someone, somewhere will turn that carving over and find my name. and I will live on through it. I will have my legacy. I found something which I will continue to do until I can not do it any more. And I will be happy doing it. It is 10 years later to the day of my first carving and I am planning for the day I will be officially retired from the postal service. The greatest journey of my life is about to begin in earnest and I can’t wait to see where it takes me. I will regret nothing when my time comes. Happy anniversary, my little penguin.

Me and Grandpa 1968

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