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Last month, we here at Highland Woodworking had the privilege of hosting an introduction to woodcarving class by professional woodcarver, Mary May. Eight lucky woodworkers had the opportunity to carve a floral design and a classic scallop shell in this two-day intensive here at the Tage Frid classroom. Although I was unable to attend the class in person, Mary was kind enough to answer some questions about her profession and interests.
Highland Woodworking: Your new book, Carving the Acanthus Leaf, is entirely focused on the shaping of a single form across many iterations. What is so compelling about classical techniques and forms? How did you choose the approach and the tools that are a part of your art?
Mary May: When I was traveling as a student in Europe, I fell in love with the ornate architecture and fine carved details of the cathedrals and castles. I realized that this historical leaf was everywhere. No matter where in Europe, or what style of architecture or ornament, the acanthus leaf was one of the most prolific design motifs. It had evolved and migrated to such extremes that often it barely resembled the real leaf, but it still survives as a common design today.
After my enchantment of the ornate carvings I saw in Europe, I went on a search for a woodcarving teacher. I knew I wanted to learn that style of carving. I discovered Konstantinos Papadakis, a Greek master woodcarver who taught me the highly stylized Byzantine carvings often seen in Greek Orthodox churches. He taught me to carve in the traditional techniques and styles that have been used for centuries—all with the use of hand tools.
HW: What is the relationship between your work and your surroundings? How do you see yourself positioned within the woodworking community?
MM: I hope that the love I have for woodcarving is contagious. When I am alone in my workshop I can become lost for hours as I work with shaping and forming the wood into magical shapes. When you discover something you love, you naturally want to share it with others. Teaching and seeing others succeeding in this wonderful art gives me tremendous satisfaction. I love to see the excitement on students' faces when they proudly share their completed carving.
HW: Between working on commissions, teaching (online and in person), and carving for the pleasure of it, what balance exists between the demands and rewards of your work?
MM: These days commissions, in-person teaching and creating instructional videos for my online carving school take up most of my time, and I spend equal time on each. It's a nice balance because nothing ever gets boring or too much. There is always something new every day. I don't have a lot of time to carve my own designs, but when I do, I can get lost for days or even weeks in the creative flow. My husband doesn't see much of me during that time when I'm often out in my workshop at midnight chipping away for "just a few more minutes."
HW: I’ve read about your many gouges and sweeps, and the joy of having a million-gouge-long tool roll. What’s your favorite tool at present?
MM: My "go to" gouge that I seem to use in nearly every project, and the one I use when no other one will work, is the #3, 6mm fishtail. And no, you can't have too many tools.
HW: What project (recent, current, or forthcoming) are you most excited about?
MM: Writing my first book on Carving the Acanthus Leaf was a true labor of love, and I'm very excited to announce that it is finally finished after 3 years of work. I never knew what it took to write a book and now I realize that it is not something that can be done "in your spare time”—especially when you don't have a lot of spare time.
A carving project I am currently working on is a very ornate reproduction of a 1770's American Rococo style fireplace for an older Charleston, SC home. It is by far the most detailed and decorated fireplace I have ever carved. It has opened doors for more work of this type, and I'm excited to see what is around the corner. As I said, it's never a dull moment!
Find out more and purchase Mary May's new book Carving the Acanthus Leaf
Amy received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is the staff writer at Highland Woodworking. In 2015 she and her dad co-founded Coywolf Woodworks, their hobby shop in North Florida.
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