In my case I did not decide to become a woodcarver. My first few woodcarvings just happened. In fact at the time, I didn't know that traditional woodcarvers existed anymore. On an annual June family reunion in Cape May in 2001, my Uncle Bill told me about a creation that a family friend had given them. It was the same subject, a leaf, I believe, repeated 3 times in 3 different mediums, one of the mediums was wood. I had always had an artistic bent coupled with the ego of an artist and remembered thinking to myself, 'I could do that'. I filed the thought away in the underworld of my cluttered mind.
That July, I turned 40 and it started a dialogue in my head. For the first time in my life, I really dealt with the issue of my own mortality. Was this midlife, were my days numbered, and the writing clearly on the wall? Or would I have many, many more days to waste away getting nowhere fast. There was no mid-life crisis, no therapy, no craziness on my part. It was a quiet yearning for something more, something that mattered, something that when I left this earth, I could be proud of. What I knew then was that I felt unaccomplished and that did not sit well with me. I had no legacy to pass down to future generations, nothing to contribute to mankind. Besides passing my DNA down to my son, there would be nothing to say I had been here. Career-wise, I had been a sign maker, an x-ray darkroom technician, an developer repairman, a New York State EMT for a brief period, a restaurant worker and a US letter carrier. All of these were respectable occupations that sounded good when I began them but within a few short months or years, I knew that I would not want to spend my life doing any of them. To be honest, I was never ambitious. I was always happy with very little. If I could pay my bills, have money to live and a roof over my head, I was content. It had never been about money or fame.
Looking back on my life, the one thing that remained a constant was my art. I had doodled, drawn and painted since I was a young child and this slowly developing talent led to my first job at the age of 15 as a sign-maker for local businesses. Somehow, it wasn't creative enough for me and I soon grew tired of it. I continued my art as a hobby and even made a few bucks from it, now and then. When I was 17, with high school graduation looming large, my mom asked me what I was going to do with myself. I didn't give a moments pause and told her, "I'm going to be an artist". What came next was one of the most hurtful things that ever happened to me. My mom laughed at me and said "Don't be silly. That's not a job, you will need a real job because when you turn 18, I will be charging you rent". I was crushed, my art was the one thing that held any meaning for me. I was broken. In retrospect, I should not have listened to her but a mothers view of a child holds a tremendous weight in any kids life. I never had any semblance of a good relationship with my mom, but always looking for her approval, I went out into the world of working people only to regret it 20 years later. I know now that I should have suffered for my art, even if it meant sleeping in the gutter for a few years.
In early Sept.01, my Uncle Bill, who had collected a few pieces of my drawings and paintings called on the phone. His son, my cousin, T. Kyle, who lived here on Staten Island had landed a job in the financial district in Manhattan. My uncle, who lived in Pennsylvania, asked me to make him a drawing or painting of something NYC related to keep in his office to reflect this. We bantered ideas back and forth and we agreed that I would create something that had the Staten Island Ferry as its focus. I wrote it down and soon the scrap of paper became buried under other things and was forgotten for awhile.
I eventually returned home, upset and not knowing what to do but knowing that I needed to stay calm until the world made sense again and I went down into the basement workshop in an effort to do something, anything to distract myself from the terrible events and rumors of the day. I came across the scrap of paper with the word ferry on it. I put it aside to do some thinking. what would I draw, what would I create. The conversation about the leaf in 3 different mediums rose up to the forefront of my mind. I looked around me and surprisingly there was a slab of pine sitting there. It was at that moment I knew what I would do. I would carve a ferry into the wood. While I was laying out the design on the wood in pencil, it looked like a ferry floating in space so I needed to give it a back ground. There was no question in my mind that the background would be the Twin Towers in all their former glory. I finished the design and laid it aside again.
My first carving
The act of carving that day was therapy, mediation and resolution all through a little piece of wood. It was the most incredibly peaceful thing I had ever attempted, just me, the wood and a knife. In the middle of it, I broke down crying, the tears wouldn't stop. I was finally crying for my mom, for all that I ever wanted for us, for her approval which I would never get, for all the words never spoken. I was crying for the loss of my beloved Twin Towers and a world which would never be innocent again. I was crying for the loss of my livelihood and the stability and financial security I had known up until that point. It was a terribly emotional afternoon. But even through the mist of the tears, my hands kept working. I wasn't sure if it was my mom now giving me permission to continue my art or if I was doing my art, in spite of her, because she couldn't laugh at me anymore. Whatever happened to me on that afternoon, I would never, ever be the same. I had finally found myself. And by the time I finished that little carving, I knew who I was and who I was meant to be. .
Eventually someone did come home and help me up the stairs and back into bed. I was clutching the penguin in my hand. They asked me what I was thinking going down into the basement. "This", I proudly proclaimed and held my little penguin up for their approval. They said, "you didn't make that". And as I reassured them that I did, The next days plan was already forming in my head. I would carve again. The next carving was a series of ducks innocently swimming past a hollow log. A carving for my duck loving little boy. Unbeknownst to him, inside the hollow log I had carved a ready-to-strike snake in perfect position to snatch the littlest duckling, my own twisted sense of humor coming in to play. It was a lesson from his mom, to be careful in this world.
From small beginnings, come great things. My life changed in so many ways. I had never found something which had ignited such a fire inside me. I carved day and night after that, started purchasing all the tools I would need and eventually understood that carving was how I would leave my mark on this world. In the last 10 years, I estimate I have done close to 1000 carvings, and have taught a few hundred people how to get started. I have written a book, I have gone on many carving journeys and met wonderful people along the way. I have made so many, many dear friends. I have woodcarvings in 23 countries on 4 continents now and even if just one of those carvings lasts beyond my lifetime, someday, someone, somewhere will turn that carving over and find my name. and I will live on through it. I will have my legacy. I found something which I will continue to do until I can not do it any more. And I will be happy doing it.
It is 10 years later to the day of my first carving and I am about to be officially retired from the postal service. The greatest journey of my life is about to begin in earnest and I can't wait to see where it takes me. I will regret nothing when my time comes. Happy anniversary, my little penguin.