Whitespace

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2018

The carving shown here is in the Chase House in Strawberry Banke, a unique museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that preserves the 300-year history of a waterfront neighborhood. The carving is attributed to ship carver Ebenezer Dearing and is in the formal parlor. The rest of my family toured the house while I examined this carving. It’s carved in White Pine, almost certainly carved as a separate unit on a temporary base. Once carved, the artist removed it from the temporary support and undercut or “backed” the ribbon work so that it appears free of the surface beneath it. After finishing, it was added to a flat ground piece that comprises what I’d call the under mantle. I can’t tell if the work was originally painted or left in its natural color.
The carving was probably done in the mid-1760s when Dearing owned the building and timewise fits into the Georgian Period for design. I invite a ton of criticism, but the undercut ribbon work and some other design elements suggest that earlier baroque design practices influenced the carver. That was why I poured through my carving books at home for similar models and, not finding them looked online. Finally, I found only one that echoed the ribbon work.


After frustrating myself for several hours, I went to bed and, like all too often, dreamed about the issue. In the dream, my old mentor Warburton was scoffing at me and pointing out that the style or Period of the piece mattered very little. “It’s the design intent of the artist that’s important. Whitespace Louis, whitespace”.
Later the next day, while looking at the photos, I realized that among the reasons I admired the carver’s technique and design was because of his restraint in how he filled the space available space is filled. What is not filled with the design is as important as what is. Additionally, the design is well balanced as a mass within the tablet it occupies. Yes, Mr. Warbuton, Whitespace.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical carvers. Well, to be fair, I’ve envied their mastery of the craft. But, while respecting them, I never wanted to follow them. I’ve always found the majority of the work to be too crowded.

And that’s why I like Ebenezer Dearing’s carving. Proper use of whitespace.

Tool and Materials do not the Artist Make – a flashback Friday presentation

The buzz among some of those studying traditional crafts was that they were not entirely sure that Louis Charpentier was “really” traditional. His roots in rural Quebec carving animal figures for an Ark were unimpeachable. His decades of service as a designer for a plastics manufacturer worried some. But, carving plastic, Carving styrofoam? For some, these placed him beyond the pale. 
Their opinion did not bother Louie one bit. He joyfully carved all and any appropriate material with his industrial carving machine. The machine was a large motor with chucks on either end. In the chucks were the sort of burrs you might use in a Dremel tool, but more robust. Using a wide variety of burrs and bits, he effortlessly carved anything from a dragon to a deer. He seemed to be a traditional carver turned loose in a machine shop. Louie just perceived the machine as an extension of his hands and mind. The tool or material did not matter it was the crafter that was important.
One of my favorite Louie stories happened one day while I was visiting his home in Leominster, MA. The conversation came around to what sort of work he did for the plastics company most often. He paused, went into his bedroom closet and then returned with several shopping bags of buttons. The bags were full of buttons and represented a significant amount of Louie’s output over much of his career. Think about it someone had to create the original. Then the molds get made so millions of copies can be injection molded. Many of the buttons Louie created are still in production today.
Most people in Central Massachusetts remember Louis Charpentier for his annual Christmas display outside his Leominster home. Louie would work for months on the figures. Each year many of the items were new. Louie would buy sheets of white Styrofoam, carve them into shape with an old steak knife, and glue up the pieces with toothpicks and carpenters glue. It was the Styrofoam that most irked folk art purists; that merely amused Louie.

So, as I stated in the title materials and tools do not the artist make

Flashback Friday – from June of 2019 – One Of A Kind Eagle

This gem of an eagle was waiting for me inside one of the Jefferson St. houses at the Strawberry Banke Museum. If you are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, you’ll see where the carver found his design inspiration.

There are notable design differences between the Great Seal and this eagle, however. The stars are on a blue field behind the head of the eagle, not in a rayed circular device over its head. The banner bearing the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is gracefully scrolled through the eagle’s beak and across the wings rather than through the beak and upwards between the wings. Rather than thirteen arrows, the carver made five. The legs also have a bend in them rather than sticking straight out, and the tail feathers are nor fanned out as in the Seal.

In reading the history of the Seal, you would see that it’s authorized by Congress to have thirteen arrows. One rendition of the Seal that was in use for many years had only six; never represented with five. Careful examination of the shield also shows some liberties with the design; check and see if you can find them. The claws and feet of birds can be challenging. The feet on this birdie are masterfully figured and detailed.


A canopy surmounted the eagle with drapery swags hanging down. Similar swags saw use in both architectural carving and marine carving ( on a ships quarter galleries at the stern). The artist or the client wanted to suggest the Seal, but not blindly replicate it. There are legal limitations on portraying the Seal for other than official use, so it could be that the client was interested in avoiding censure.


OK, in my opinion, most of the variations improve upon the design, and I opine that the artist felt the same way. I’d suggest that the wood is native pine and that the artist if not a maritime carver, was very familiar with the techniques and preferences of that art.

The artist was influenced by the work of Samual McIntire of Salem. The neck and carving of the feathered crest of the head suggest that influence.
The curators at Strawberry Banke have dated the piece as circa 1890. The artist is unknown. I wish I knew more about the artist and the article. If you have any clues, let me know.

The Fugitive Nature Of Art

One of my wife’s great grandfathers had been a successful chip carver in Vermont. He had even been mentioned in a contemporary book on artisans in that state. All this, as is often the case, was forgotten over the generations. About thirty years ago the elderly sisters who controlled the family estate began liquidating the old family homes and contents. Among the items that poured forth were carved pieces from grandfather. Like me, he sold the number ones and kept the number two’s as reminders of how to cut the patterns. One of these little boxes found its way to my wife. I was fortunate to receive a small book of designs that he regularly carved.
As a carver, my wife’s great grandfather was praised for the accuracy of his cuts, and the effortless nature of his carving (the photo I’m including is of one of his practice pieces; all that remains of his work as a carver).

Eventually, the cleaners reached the attic of his house. In the attic were the real reasons for his accuracy, and success at carving; Boxes and boxes of practice pieces. He had been a compulsive perfectionist in his craft and saved his failures as kindling for the woodstove. At the end of his life, the last five or six shoe boxes never made it to the stove and were consigned to the attic.

This post could end with an encouragement to practice for the sake of mastery – as Coveney put it the need to “sharpen your saw.” What you do often you do well. And, this is very true, but let’s take it just a bit further. One of my senseis in Iaido ( the Japanese art of drawing the sword) likes to talk about the “fugitive nature of the art.” It’s impermanent, use it or lose it. Try laying off a skill which depends on not just your intellect, but also the sort of muscle memory needed to cut accurately and the skill degrades. Don’t do it for long enough and while your brain may remember all the steps your body is cranky. Your muscle memory has degraded. This fugitive nature of the art holds true in sword work, in hand-carving, and I’d imagine in arts like dance.
We do not just achieve mastery once. We continue to reach for it through continued use because skill is fugitive.

Meerschaum Pipe – Last on the Card- August 31, 2021

This Meerschaum pipe was going to illustrate a post on Boston that I did last week, but I could not get a nice shot of it. It was hand-carved in the late 1960s in Turkey. It’s a lovely example of traditional carving styles in materials other than wood. A favorite possession even though I no longer smoke, I like its feel and the detailed carving.

The Transom Eagle

During the nineties, I frequently went into the old Boston Navy Yard to have lunch with my friend Bill Bromell. Bill was the model maker at the Constitution Museum and had an absolutely to die for shop above the Constitution’s maintenance shop. Going to visit was one way of ensuring that my friend, who was just a bit of an eccentric, got out for some fresh air.
One day, we were walking through the maintenance shop on our way to lunch and stopped to watch one of the carpenters working on the transom eagle seen in the picture I’ve attached. I was doing the traditional carver’s routine of looking at all the details of someone else’s work when I noticed the paint pot nearby and the sad look on the carpenter’s face. We did the usual thing and asked what was wrong. He explained that he had just finished carefully stripping the old bird and was about to prime it before it was re-installed. It was carved in 1910 of Ponderosa pine ( not wood we’d generally look to these days for carving, but old-growth? That might be a different story). This eagle was probably a replacement for something earlier. Carved wood on vessels does not last forever.
It turned out that he’d just finished stripping multiple layers of old paint. Wood on vessels needs paint or varnish to aid in preservation. But, the detail disappears. And, the detail on this eagle’s bare wood was incredible. The carver had been interested in creating an accurate portrayal of each feather. I felt a pang of sympathy for the carver who created such beauty, knowing that it would get covered in paint.

I remembered back to my own Navy days. And recalling the old rubric that “if it moves – salute it. If it doesn’t paint it,” I asked: How many coats did you take off it? 56, he said.
I thought about the average bosun and the average bosun’s frame of mind when confronted with keeping the deck division busy: ” Hey you! Johnson! Rig a bosun’s chair and paint the bloody eagle.”
I understood the sadness of both the carpenter and generations of seaman Johnsons.

Media

Two of the best artists I’ve known were fluid on the choice of media. Given the correct tools and approach, any material could yield to the creative genius. Both of them loved a challenge.
Warburton, my Baltimore mentor, gleefully recounted how he had worked with an ice sculptor on an elaborate piece for a wedding. He’d never worked with ice or chainsaws before. Warburton claimed it was oddly liberating. It encouraged some interesting, fun pieces in the snow with his grandchildren. The media’s impermanence was “captivating” to someone who worked in wood, silver, and gold.
Louis Charpentier was indifferent to media type also. Starting as a child on a farm in Quebec, his first creations had been in scrap wood, and the subjects had been the pets and barnyard animals on the farm. By the time he was the design chief of a plastics firm, he had carved everything from steel to balsa. But his favored material in later years was common styrofoam.
I once intensely offended a student by carving common pine; it should be quartersawn and perfect wood. But eloquent work is less about the media used and more about the artist. Don’t let prejudice blind you.

New and Old

We can easily get lost in the weeds talking about tradition in crafts. It’s just hard to avoid observing that technology casts long shadows when you make something and call it traditional. The majority of shops that work with wood use bandsaws, table saws, and jointers. These tools have been around long enough not to ignite a vendetta among purists looking for “traditionally crafted goods.” But the technological landscape is always changing for the craftsperson.
Recently I have been nosing about on the borders. A few years ago, a series of eye surgeries compromised my ability to do certain types of woodcarving, mostly lettering. After surgery, I began to explore what I could and couldn’t conveniently do. The vision changes prompted the carving shop’s move from the old basement workshop into the greenhouse – I needed lots of light. Last year I also began to play around incorporating laser engraving and cutting as an adjunct to my carving.
Some things worked well, and others fell flat. Frankly, it’s all a work in progress. The small sign shown above is one of the projects that worked. Some of the others wound up feeding the woodstove.
Is it traditional? Well, was it traditional when craftspeople and artists began using acrylic paints or using computers to assist them in design?

Years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I knew a woman who crafted the most incredible Ukrainian Easter eggs. One afternoon over coffee Elizabeth introduced me to the history of technological innovation in the world of decorated Easter eggs. Over the centuries, dies and methods of preparation changed. But the community accepted the eggs because of the continuity of design and meaning in the community.
Back in the ’80’s colleagues were musing about Cambodian kite makers shifting from traditional fabrics used in Cambodia to the ripstop nylon available to them here in the United States. The maker of traditional Cambodian dance costumes received mention also. One of them had adopted the hot glue gun and factory-made jewelry findings to construct elaborate headdresses and other costume bits. They looked like the old style, but the components and techniques had evolved.

On one project I worked on years ago with boatbuilders, I asked builders what they thought was the central concept that defined the traditional boat. I had expected them to talk about materials, construction techniques, and design. I wasn’t disappointed because they all mentioned those things to one degree or another, but as a group, they said the value placed on the boat by the community that used them was central. One well-known figure I interviewed ( Lance Lee) suggested the term “cherish” as the central concept – the boats were cherished and valued by the community. It was the community of users that made something traditional.

The laser engraver that sits in the basement, and my visual handicap, got me thinking about these things. The concept of craft, especially when labeled traditional, has some minefields laid in it for the artisan. Look beyond technology to intent, the community’s acceptance of the product, and the continuation of design tradition. Sometimes we might be daunted by what we see, but the first carver who moved from a stone or bone tipped tool to one of metal started us on the moving process of technology in arts and craft.

Seeing Is Believing

I made some very sweet eagle-headed canes in the nineties. At one show, I sold the very best one to someone who was sightless. The details that people without visual impairment take for granted this young woman was able to take in by using her hands. I was immensely pleased, not at the sale, but to have my work so appreciated. The only other people who felt my work were children. I was continually telling parents that it was OK for kids to handle the carving. That is one of the beautiful things about carving wood- its tactile nature. I find myself hoping that people don’t just stop when they see my carving, but also touch it.
There are some things that people do automatically start stroking: spoons. I work very hard to avoid making an exact repeat. There are some lovely spoons out there that look handmade but are not. Take a look at the “family resemblance.” All the spoons and spatulas look graceful, smooth, and well designed, but there is very little individuality. Of course, I am not in the spoon business. I don’t have to turn out thousands a year to keep my enterprise solvent. I may make a few hundred if I’m doing shows. That quantity allows me to play around. I am looking for designs with excellent utility, well balanced, looks attractive, and feels nice.

To see and to feel are complementary senses. As a society, we tend to emphasize the visual at the cost of feel. That can be a mistake.
Boatbuilder Ralph Johnson drove this home to me years ago. We were planking a small boat. He asked me if the plank I had just finished shaping was fair. Based on my vision, I replied that it was. He just smiled and asked me to close my eyes and walk down the plank while I ran my thumb against the edge. As I progressed, I felt every rough bump, dip, and ding. In boatbuilders’ jargon, it was not genuinely fair.

Seeing may be believing, but feel will give you a less biased second opinion.

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