I have a wonderful commission that I have been working on. It is a Nativity set (Creche) for Mepkin Abbey, in Moncks Corner, SC. Every Christmas they have a wonderful Creche festival with many different hand-made Creche scenes made in a variety of materials. If you are in SC in November and December, I would really encourage you to see the festival.
I need to complete 3 figures – Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus – by early November, and have nearly finished carving Joseph. Because of the late start on this (I started locating the wood about 3 weeks ago), I was extremely tight with the amount of time I had. I was eager to get started with the carving, so the quickest way to start in as soon as possible was to simply find a log and start carving. The wood I chose was Paulownia, and Rod Mortenson, of Swansea, SC was kind enough to give me several logs that he had in his yard. Paulownia is originally from Japan – an extremely lightweight wood, very soft, very strong, sort of pithy, stringy, not the nicest to carve with chisels, but it grinds well, and when I use my electric chisel, it cuts quickly. The choice of wood was based on availability (3 logs that have been sitting outside for a few years), speed of carving, lightness (for ease of moving around), and I honestly didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. But I’m always up for a good challenge!
There were a lot of unknowns from the start – how much rot was there after being outside for so long? Once the rot was removed, was there enough shape to find Joseph? Or would it simply be a toothpick by the end of a lot of grinding? And the big question – could this actually be done?
Well, the answers are – there was a LOT of rot. When I started to grind away the rot, it just kept getting deeper and deeper. The nice thing about it was it went very quick! I probably removed all the rot in about 1/2 hour – nice soft wood. There was a point were I really felt like I was carving out a dug-out canoe. And Joseph was supposed to be in there somewhere. I got to a point where I found a huge rotten hole where I determined that I would simply have to cut off the section above this hole. So Joseph got about 9 inches shorter. At that point I didn’t even know which end would be Joseph’s head. I litereally turned it one side up – stared at it for a while trying to visualize a figure, the turned it the other side and again tried to see Joseph. The design was simply based on what good wood was left after removing the rot.
Once I determined which side was up, I started to locate the shoulders and the head. From there I started to position the arms and hands and staff he is holding.
For as long as I could resist, I tried to not carve “holes” which would lock me into a design. As long as I resisted making those holes, I could shift the design all over the place – up, down, right, left. Once a hole is cut, you’re sort of locked in.
I am happy with the way Joseph is turning out. Now I have a lot of work to do in carving Mary. The log she is cut out of had a lot more rot, so I still have a lot of sorting out to do in designing her. I will report…