On Style

We were at a tavern in the Seaport district in New York. I had just won a bet on recognizing a carver’s work based on their tool cuts. It was an easy win; the carvings I had identified were by a carver whose work I was familiar with. Carvers have habits like everyone else, ways we like to do eagle feathers, eyes, or our taste in how fancy the volutes are ( those carved spiral designs that you often see on violins, columns, or holding up figureheads). See enough of this, especially if it’s your professional interest and you recognize the style.
Of course, the most carving is anonymous. Whether in stone, wood, or other media, most of us and our carvings will be nameless. An occasional mentor of mine had trained in France before the Second World War and told me that daily, hundreds of feet of exquisite trade carved molding and detail were produced in his master’s shop. All of it was destined to be nameless.
So yes, I can recognize the styles of Samuel Robb, Bellamy, Rush, or Skillin in many cases. But museums are full of unattributed work. Some of this is happenstance; the carver was in a small harbor and attracted little notice. Or, in the case of Bellamy, he was located in space and time when his work attracted attention. Bellamy also developed a distinctive and unique style that captured much attention.

Friends who’ve been with me on visits to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Mystic Seaport have to stifle yawns if we pass a particularly lovely piece of carving. Then, my whole demeanor changes, and I begin to discuss the style and execution of the design. Then, getting deeper into the weeds, I discuss if the carving represents a particular regional style. Please don’t laugh; when it comes to volutes on billet heads, there is a regional difference between, say, the Chesapeake and New England.

I imagine two old ships carvers in the 19th century getting snookered and getting into a fight over the curves on a volute to the disgust of their wives. The marine trades are full of passionate people.

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

Apprentice Piece

I picked up this letter opener in the ’90s probably at the big antique center in Newburyport, MA. I doubt that I paid more than two dollars for it, and felt that I had procured a lovely little piece very cheaply. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. The professionally trained carver had selected European walnut for the article; I’ve always favored European over American walnut for delicate pieces because of its color and tight grain. The word SOUVENIR had not been carved with a V tool or knife but was carefully incised by using individual gouge sweeps- a mark of a trade carver with a relatively complete range of curves and sizes in a set ( only trade carvers usually have that extensive a set.)


While this was no masterwork the acanthus leaf designs are beautiful, and accurately laid out and carved, and yes there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to do that. A reasonable conclusion from all the above was that the carver had been a European trained furniture carver. Someone perhaps passing from Apprentice to Journeyman, and eager to show off hard won skills.


There is age wear on the letter opener, but very little damage. It is a flat relatively thin piece that the craft person probably carved while glued to thick paper or some similar surface for carving. After completing the letter opener, a spatula would be slid under the edge to detach it. The glue used would have been a water-soluble one like hide glue, Applied hot it has excellent adhesive qualities but will release when wet. This method was and remains a good way of carving thin pieces like carved applique.
Keep your eyes open for pieces like this. They are not only lovely examples of the craft, but they offer visual lessons in how things get done. Watching a video, or reading books are fine, but handling a piece and looking at it close up is a great way to holistically understand the needed skills, tools and approach to handling complex carving. In lieu of this, I can’t emphasize the importance of museum visits enough.

Figurehead

Most of the ship’s figureheads that have come down to us are anonymous. However, the makers were well known to the commissioners. “Mr. Spinney carve me a figure for my new bark, the Emma D. Grace.” The graceful figure of lovely Emma washes ashore near Java in 1882, but the origin or the ship she graced is unknown. So it goes. Go to any maritime museum and look at the ranks of figureheads, billet heads, quarter boards, transoms, and other carvings that have survived. We may know the ship, but the carver is known only to history.

I learned this lesson early on while carving quarterboards and trailboards for small craft at Spinney’s yard. Stuck on a wall was a selection of carvings Spinney’s grandfather had salvaged from ships that had wrecked on the Widows, a treacherous reef. Spinney pointed out that the slipshod productions had probably been burned when they washed up; firewood was firewood. Only those that caught the fancy had been hung on the shed or over the door. He mentioned this as I preened over my latest. The board was for a sloop called Rose, and the name and a carving of a rose decorated the piece.

Spinney wasn’t cruel, just pointing out the nature of our business. Water has been described as the universal solvent, and it does tend to dissolve the identity of anything submerged in it long enough. So it’s better to take the simple approach. For a time, your work will be appreciated. But only a few boatbuilders, sailmakers, or carvers will get any long-term recognition. 

Take pleasure in the admiring glances on the waterfront and the overheard comments on how sweet that board looks. It may not be our fate to be remembered for ages. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reach for that.

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.

New Patterns and Old

I carved intermittently from the 1960s through the mid-seventies. Going to graduate school put an end to most carving activities, and I didn’t pick it up again until 1992.
I returned to carving by way of small boat shops. My mentors were all boatbuilders. As a consequence, my shop looks more like a boat shop than an artist’s studio. In a traditional boat shop, the rafters are hung with patterns of all sorts. Any given model may have additional marks, curves, and notes, denoting the changes needed to add, subtract, or modify the design. This way, you easily alter a boat; or a carving. Being that this was the setting where I came to the trade as a real professional, I followed the model.
My tradition of nautical carving is, in a sense, a broken tradition. I had no access to old carvers to teach me the trade. My mentors in carving had no interest in eagles, transom banners, and the like. So, I was never really sure what my antecedents in the trade would have made of my shop or my approach.
I “thought” I knew what a ships carver’s shop would have looked like in the 19th century, similar to the boat shops I was familiar with.
This made sense because the carver and shipbuilder worked closely together and carefully coordinated efforts to achieve the desired effects on the ship. But I wasn’t sure. Recreations of such shops left me unconvinced. Then one Sunday returning from WoodenBoat, it all changed. I had made a fast passage from Brooklin to Bath and had time to visit the Maritime Museum in Bath before it closed. Wandering around and snapping photos of carvings, I came upon an exhibit room tricked out as a carver’s shop. Leaning against the wall was a life-size pattern for a figurehead. Having seen many figures carved similarly to this pattern, my mind’s eye quickly thought of the variations possible with this one pattern.
I was reassured. I went home and started a series of eagles, all originating from the same pattern, all very different—sort of a reverse E Pluribus Unum. Here are some shots from that series:

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.

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.

Collections

My mentors were just that, mentors. Several couldn’t afford the expense that having an actual apprentice would cost; others were not interested. But then by the 1960s, the old apprenticeship programs in crafts like carving were gone.
Then there was that little problem of my lack of maturity. When the opportunity to work with them presented itself, I was interested but not prepared. I think that was why several of them guided me in the direction of good authors and their books. Literacy and short-term courses at centers for specialized learning ( like WoodenBoat School) would replace the old system of craft shops and apprenticeships.
Even today, with the internet, there is no replacement for the book. I am working on a portrait of an early 20th-century Steam Yacht. The available information on the internet was useful, but I hardly all I needed to complete my research. Steam Yachts were a type of vessel that I had barely known existed. Using book dealers, I was able to find some titles that filled in the holes in my library. I am reasonably confident that this sort of need is true for boatbuilders, printmakers, musicians, and other professionals as well.
A funny thing happens as you develop a collection of books on your interests: your browsing habits change, and you begin looking to fill holes in your collection. Some of the side effects are less than pleasing. Bookshelves seem to appear randomly around the house; your selection must be housed. Friends with similar interests ask to borrow titles, and you clutch books to your chest, muttering about “…my precious…”
But the worst is the competition of your beloved spouse. My wife has a cookbook collection that seeks to rival my collection of maritime and woodworking titles. Sometimes she doesn’t see the natural superiority of the nautical. I stake out my claims very carefully. Eventually, someone will have to go.

CAT

I was at my booth at a boat show in Maryland when another maritime carver came to visit. Lordan was the local “yaahd cavaah,” as we’d describe it in New England. We hit off right away, talking about the little niceties of our trade. Somewhere along the line, he asked if I would be willing to make a swap. ” I know that you teach carving, and I also do. I’ve found that if I teach the students to carve the word CAT, they get a complete guide to letter carving in one word. It has the verticals, horizontals, curves, and diagonals all in one word.” We continued talking about letter carving for a while. In the days before Robo carving stole that end of our market, we tended to do a good bit of hand-carved quarter boards, transoms, and banners. After a while, I admitted that this was going to be useful to my students, and I asked him what he wanted in exchange. ” You carve a lovely little compass rose design. I’d love to borrow it for just a few boxes for presents.” “Done.” Says I, and the deal was complete.
Over the years, I used CAT to instruct many in letter carving. By the time they master CAT, the student is ready to move along to carving a quarter board.
So, the CAT carving was supposed to be a practice piece. But I noticed more than one student carefully finishing off the CAT practice piece as a finished piece of work. At last, confirmation came in the mail of what I had suspected. There, in all its glory, was the photo of a cat happily eating dinner in front of it’s very nicely varnished and gold-leafed CAT carving.
One man’s practice piece is another’s kitty gift,

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