It has been over 20 years since I fell in love with European decorative carving. I was absolutely mesmerized by the carvings that I saw while traveling in Europe – the cathedrals and castles, the stone carvings on the outsides of buildings, the wooden carved details on the insides of the cathedrals. I was the typical wide-eyed American tourist wandering aimlessly down the streets with camera in my hand and my head mostly tilted up to see the decorations on these magnificent buildings. I truly did not want to blink or breath for fear of missing something. Even after being there several months, I still never tired of being amazed at the wonder of it all. And this was before I ever put chisel to wood! There was an instant fascination with this ancient art, and when I returned to the US, I was determined to learn how this was done.
I was living in Minneapolis at the time and met Konstantinos Papadakis, a master woodcarver from Greece, and began my adventure with this new fascination. I studied and worked with Kostas for 3 years, and learned the pure and traditional techniques and styles of woodcarving that have been used for centuries. While working with Kostas, I made a decision that I would some how, some way become a professional woodcarver, and… hopefully… make a living at it, and not starve in the process.
I then had an opportunity to study for several months in Greece with the people that Costas worked with when he was an apprentice. That was an incredible experience working in a traditional Greek carving workshop. I did not know much greek, but when they wanted to make a point, you could tell by the tone of their voice – you didn’t even need to know what they were saying. I don’t think they knew what to think of me – this crazy American woman wanting to carve??? Why not??
The next opportunity that opened up for me was to study in England at the City and Guilds of London College. There was a program at the college that specialized in traditional European-style woodcarving. I only had enough money for 3 months, so I packed as much studying and learning as I could (in between the cups of tea, and visits to the pub). I also helped out at a picture frame carving shop where I learned the great technique of mass production of woodcarving. It has been a great help when I need to knock something out very quickly with as few cuts as possible (bead molding, rope molding, egg and dart, etc).
While I was in England, I had an opportunity to try my hand at stone carving (I actually carved a hand holding a rose for my first stone carving project – about 17 inches tall in limestone).
It seemed to come quite natural – it was just figuring out how the tools worked, and how to move the stone with the chisels. I already understood the 3-dimensional visualization from the woodcarving. The interesting thing is that moving from wood to stone is easier than moving from stone to wood. With stone, you really don’t need to consider grain (usually). I have spoken to people who were first trained as a stone carver and then tried to move to wood carving and they discovered the frustration of the grain. I definitely did it the right way around.
Stone carving for me was more of a discovery in fully 3-dimensional carving. For some reason I tend to stick with more relief carving or one-sided carving with wood – I suppose the reason is that wood carving is often used as ornamentation on pieces of furniture, rather than sculptural. The bottom line is – that was what the customers usually requested. I have had more requests for sculptures in stone than in wood.
While I was carving my first stone sculpture (the hand holding the rose), a professional stone carver saw my work and asked if I wanted to go to Malaysia and help decorate a mansion with stone carvings. Hmmm. Let me think about that… YES! I would have gone there for free just for the experience, but they were going to pay me!
I spent 6 incredible months as a stone carver in Pasir Gudang, Malaysia – just over the border from Singapore. That whole experience needs be a separate blog post. And I was still that wide-eyed amazed American wondering “how did I get here?” Since I really was never “officially” trained as a stone carver, a lot of it was learning on the job.
That was pretty much the last of my overseas traveling adventures with woodcarving, and that was nearly 15 years ago.
The largest stone carving I made was an 8-foot tall sculpture with 2 dolphins jumping out of swirling waves. This was carved in Indiana limestone and it took about a year and a half to complete it – from design concept to delivery. The most fascinating and surprising experience was after spending so many months looking at solid, still stone – once the water flowed over the swirling waves it actually looked like the waves were moving and swirling! It surprised me so much, that it actually made me catch my breath. It was such a wonderful surprise after such a long and focused project.
It is truly amazing as I look back on all the opportunities and doors that were opened (and some that were closed). I can definitely see the hand of God walking me down some fascinating roads. I felt His guidance when I was going through it, but can see His hand a lot clearer looking back on my experiences – how it all unfolded into an incredible school of life and art.