My wife and I’ll be celebrating Valentine’s Day late. Unfortunately, it seems both our work schedules will be in opposition, with me covering a school committee meeting in the evening and her working that night. The fates have decided to punish us. She did receive her present early—a pair of handmade cherry hair sticks. We also managed to carve out a sentimental hug session after dinner. Our adult live-in children are in their rooms on their computers, and the cat and dog are occupied with their nefarious schemes to conquer the world a la Pinky and the Brain. Sometimes it feels like, thanks to our schedules; we’ve hit the dregs, but a little cuddle with your sweetie goes a long way towards dispelling those feelings.
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
My wonky right eye has caused no end of trouble for me. However, I do celebrate that I have vision in it at all. A routine visit to the ophthalmologist years ago came up with a macular hole in the offending eye. While surgery closed the hole, saving the eye, it left my vision just a bit cockeyed. To most, it wouldn’t be noticeable, but I am a carver and a videographer. The adjustments to my life have been nothing short of major. I have had to learn to carve and do many shop tasks in new ways. In video, I have made sure that I check everything twice.
Jokingly, as they put me under for surgery, I asked if they could give me the X-ray vision add-on. My surgeon laughed. To date, I am waiting for that feature to kick in. OOOH, x-ray vision!!!
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.
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.
No, matter how careful you think you are, minor errors can creep in. They may be small, but they look big and need fixing. For example, on this ten inch mast hoop portrait of a Town Class sloop, I was particularly upset by the miscut of the line on the sail batten. You get involved and miss things. I caught this in time to fix it. As I finish up, my habit is to take a carving outside of the shop for a look under different lighting. So I took this one outside to the natural daylight, shifted its position to look at it from different angles, and then splashed it with some mineral spirits. That final bit is something that I almost always do while carving cherry. It gives me a clue about what the piece will look like varnished and makes the fine lines pop out. Notably, on cherry, it doesn’t raise the grain much. I corrected the errors in carving, started the varnishing cycle, and then fit the finished portrait into the mast hoop. These mast hoop portraits range from ten inches in diameter to about sixteen inches ( internal diameter), and are among my favorite things to carve.
January is prototype month in my small carving shop. It’s the nadir of the shop’s cycle when I prototype ideas, designs and just play around. This year, I’m spending time combining traditional carving skills with complimentary work accomplished on a laser cutter/engraver. Some things have worked very well and have generated further ideas for thought and practice, and some have been disasters. The photo shows some of the projects on the bench right now. My greenhouse is the carving shop, and it receives lots of natural light that I enhance with LED lighting. The combination of the light and woodcarving projects helps abate seasonal winter blahs. The greenhouse is the wintertime home to plants needing a cooler climate than the house; I work with the scent of rosemary and other plants in the air. Small, yes, a bit messy, That too. But an environment encouraging creative processes when I would otherwise be at a standstill.
We all deserve the best creative environment we can get. Most often, we make compromises. Unless you’re in cabinetmaking, space may not be your critical need. Besides space, you need time to experiment. I strongly suggest finding a low point and filling it with creativity.
My shop is named after the famous Davy Jones. Please note that as a sailor, I am cautious not to offend Davy. It might be funny or humorous to a flatlander, but most sailors stick to traditions. Traditions like no bananas allowed on board, never start a voyage on a Friday and don’t whistle for a wind ( you’ll get a storm). So I’d never use the word infamous in describing the locker or make fun of Davy’s establishment.
A locker onboard a ship, in a boat or shipyard, is where you stow tools, paint, varnish, rope, line, or sails. Davy Jones Locker was where all those good things lost overboard wound up. You could occasionally hear someone say, ” it’s gone to Davy’s.”
Growing up in a family where my father was Merchant Marine, and my uncle Navy, I heard many Davy Jones stories while little. Having already toured a few chandler’s shops, I imagined it to be a large ship chandlery, or for the flatlanders reading this perhaps a super-sized Walmart or hardware store on steroids – but just for ships and boats.
My shop didn’t start that way. It was my greenhouse. Then I saw how pleasant it was to sit out there all toasty in February. So I added a bench. Then the tools started migrating up from the dank, dark basement shop. How could I stop them? They wanted to be cozy too. Problems arranging and storing things developed. I’ve described it as ten pounds in a five-pound bag. But that was six months ago, and things have deteriorated since them.
So I yielded and put the Davy Jones’ Locker sign up. Let’s call it like it is.
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,
The pictures are not the best, but please forgive me, it’s a challenge to photograph something that tall. It’s the trailboards ( really the stem boards), and billet head of the five-masted schooner the Cora F. Cressy. The Cressy was a large collier schooner. A collier schooner was one that carried coal to New England from ports to the south in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Tidewater ports of Virginia.
Very little other than a pile of rotting timber remains of her, but if you go to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, you’ll see these impressive stem boards and way, way, way, up high the billet head. The Cressy was not to a small ship ( 273 feet ). The large schooners like the Cressy had impressive shear lines with their bows and sterns gracefully reaching above the water. A sailor will always admire a sweet shear. These sweeping lines served a practical purpose. The Cressy, and others like her, were designed and built to be carriers of massive amounts of coal. In the case of the Cressy, it’s estimated that she could load 4,000 tons. The sweeping sheer at bow and stern insured that when fully laden, the ship possessed enough freeboard that she rode safely above the surface of the sea. As a result, the bow embellishment on the Cressy is an elaborate scroll that swept up the long stem. Notice that the stem boards were lofted from multiple pieces just as other structural parts, except with the consideration that the carver would be interested in how grain orientation ran for carving.
I came away from the visit impressed with the Cressy. But also a bit mystified. Between 1971 and the end of ’73, I had a live-in carving studio in a little building that had once been an office for a lumberyard on Sherman St. in the Charlestown area of Boston. Adjacent to me at 10 Sherman St. was a towing company called Cressy Transportation. Cressy Transportation was in the business of towing really large broken-down tractors and trailers – not your average AAA tow. I grew friendly with some of the drivers. One day while visiting the office for coffee, I noticed large framed photos of four and five-masted schooners on the wall. Asking about them, they informed me that back when the company had owned a fleet of sailing vessels. The drivers and the clerk had no further information, and eventually, I forgot to follow up on the story behind the photos. Until one day, I wandered into the Maine Maritime Museum and saw the Cora F Cressy materials on exhibit.
I confirmed that my recollection that it had been a company named Cressy by hunting through old Boston city directories. In 1969 there they were at 10 Sherman St. I also found the Cressy’s had owned a small fleet of schooners around 1915, but the war years had not been kind to their interests; one as torpedoed in 1917, and another was burned off the coast of France soon after. Fire was a continual hazard for coal schooners due to the flammable nature of the cargo.
The Cora F Cressy, did not have a very long career as a collier. She ultimately wound up as a breakwater, but before that, she found use as a floating night club. A bit of trivia that seems to connect the Cressy Family to the Cora F. Cressy is that when she became a floating night club, Carl Cressy was given a luxury accommodation on her since the vessel was named for his mother.
I have not been able to connect the dots concerning the Cora F Cressy, the Cressy fleet of colliers, or Cressy Transportation. I may never find a link, but I’ll continue to look, and will update this post if I find more data. It’s part of what makes the interest in maritime history interesting.
Is there a potential ship’s portrait in the offing? I don’t know. Being that they consume a good bit of time, it’d be a year before my current workload clears up. We’ll see.
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