Thursday, March 29, 2012

How do you become a woodcarver? A reflection on my 10 year carving anniversary.

Killing time and slaying dragons!

   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.

     A few weeks later on Sept. 11th, 2001, my world would turn and readjust its axis when I watched the Twin Towers collapse in front of me. What I remember of that morning was how beautiful and perfect a morning it was. The sky was crystal clear and a beautiful shade of blue. There were big puffy clouds floating around. The type of clouds that you lay down in the grass and look up at, imaging all types of things in them. It was fall, the leaves were needing to be raked and it seemed like there was no better day for a bit of outside work.  I had clipped my walkman to my pants, hung the headphones around my neck, walked down the steps to go outside, when the phone rang.  I continued out the door but having a young child in school, I turned back to answer it, in case it was some type of emergency.  It was a friend of mine and the only thing she said was "hang up the phone and turn the TV on. I did as asked and saw that it was moments after the first plane struck the tower which was now on fire. How could that have happened I thought to myself and raced out into my car. As I reached the north shoreline of Staten Island, the second plane hit.  I was standing there taking pictures a while later when the first one collapsed. I have personal photos in time sequence of the event. As the first tower fell, all the wind rushed out of me, my legs weakened and quivered and I dropped to the ground on my knees. I understood that it was the moment when thousands of people died and were vaporized. Very little was left behind to even prove they ever existed. I felt it to my core. These were, for the most part, innocent working people who didn't deserve to die.  Interestingly enough, I had just read a study in which the results were, the number one regret that people have on their deathbeds is that they spent too much time working and not enough time enjoying life. As panic was all around me, I decided I needed to go get my son from school in case we were at war or something, only to find that my ex-husband who was much closer to the school had already picked him up.
     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.

     In the fall of 2001 I went on my annual vacation to Provincetown in Cape Cod, MA.  It was my habit to bring something of a creative nature with me. I brought the slab of wood with me and my dremel with all its bits and attachments.  There on the beachfront deck of our rented condo, I proceeded to shape the wood into a folk art depiction of the ferry. I eventually mailed it off to my uncle who loved it. Understand even though it was technically my first woodcarving, I did not consider it that. It was simply a drawing/painting of the ferry which had been shaped into a piece of wood.
     A few months later, on Dec. 18th, now a letter carrier for many years, I would slip on a set of stairs. I severely dislocated and catastrophically broke my ankle. This would lead to many months the following year, spent having surgeries and living in a wheelchair with a huge heavy hard cast covering almost my entire leg. I spent a tremendous amount of time laying in bed, reading, watching TV and movies and playing video games until eventually a morose sense of long-term boredom set in.
     At the end of January, 2002, I received a very distressing phone call from my dad in Florida, which would again tilt the axis of my world. My mom had suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. This was something so unexpected that it didn't make much sense to me in the moment. My dad was older than her. Dads were supposed to die first in my naive view of the world. I packed a suitcase and caught the first plane I could manage to. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, in a cast, in a wheel chair, going through the post 911 airport security. I arrived in Tampa a day or two after the phone call only to be told that my mom was continuing to suffer a series of heart attacks and that the outlook was not promising. My mom was 59. This simply could not be happening. But it was. The extended family gathered down in Florida for what would be an almost month long vigil.After 2 or three weeks, I returned to NY to attend to some work related business to apply for workers compensation. I was to return to Florida and my mom and dad shortly thereafter. But in the few days I was home, it happened almost as if I wasn't meant to be there. On February 20th my mom passed away.  This was a terrible time for me especially because we hadn't resolved our personal issues with each other.  Except for a few moments of tears when I learned that she had passed and then again at the actual service, I was numb. I spent a few more days with my dad and our immediate family, When I returned home from the funeral. I guess you could say I was in shock and did not feel much of anything. My concern for my dad was paramount but not much else mattered then. Each day led into the next. and eventually life went on as it always seems to do.
  My Mom

     One day at the end of March 2002, when no one was home, I was utterly at the end of being able to handle my boredom. From my bedroom up on the second floor, still with the heavy cast on, I scooted myself on my butt, down two flights of stairs and into the basement where I had set up a small workbench under the stairs.  I had done a lot of repair work in the house and I really enjoyed that. I wanted to do something, anything, to distract myself from the physical and emotional pain I was in. I realized after a few minutes that there wasn't much I could do. Most of the tools were power tools which you needed to stand to use.  I tried to go back upstairs, then learning how much easier it was to go down stairs rather than to go up.  I sat there in pain and frustration and realized I would have to wait until someone came home to help me. That would be a few hours.  I got myself up into a high swivel chair, looked around at what I could reach. I needed something to keep me busy. I saw a small block of wood and picked it up. I looked to the rack of hand-tools attached to the wall on my other side and I saw an old rusty utility knife. Now I held a piece of wood in one hand and a knife in the other. I started whittling. I had a huge collections of penguins. I could picture a penguin in my head so I proceeded to use the knife to carve one.
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.


Eileen Donovan said...

What a wonderful touching story. Thank you for sharing it. I am proud of you, of all you have done and accomplished. And most of all for the peace you have found.

CarvinginNYC said...

Thank You Eileen, that means alot

Ann R. said...

You are a wonderful writer besides
a great woodcarver. Enjoy your
retirement. See you in July. Ann

Maria said...

Maura you are by far one of the most amazing women i have come to know.. considering we know each other 33 years.. I can't say that about a lot of women I know.. in fact the only other one I can say that about is my mom.. who is gone.. i am so proud and so touched that i can call you my friend, my sister..I am so happy for you that you have found what you love in life to make you happy.. continue to make you happy and those that you share it with..

CarvinginNYC said...

Thanks Ladies, glad you are my friends too

Unknown said...

Maura, you're incredibly talented in many ways: woodcarving, author, humor and a most heartfelt warmth to fellow man. I'm so glad you answered to call to "woodcarving." Because of that, our pathways met. I'm proud to have you firmly on my list of close friends. Continue to grow in the light and don't look back. Love and hugs, Sally Nye

CarvinginNYC said...

Thank you Sally, I am sooo glad I met you too. I don't know what it is about woodcarvers but they are the nicest most genuine people I have ever met. Happy to call you my friend, also

carverswoodshop said...

WOW , that was a wonderful story,, thanks so much,, and a great writer too!! it amazes me how folks get started with woodcarving, and the see the enjoyment it brings them,, thanks again, and keep up the good work, arleen

LLoyd Patten said...

Lloyd Patten

You have had an epiphany, which is a revelation of your true desires. I had one years ago when I viewed the work of the faculty of the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I was moved to change my directions in my schooling to one of the crafts, and I went on to become a potter, and woodworker Now at 81, I am longing for another epiphany, a self-generated one, in which my childhood desire to become an architect will be realized.
As long as you are moving forward with what you really want to do with your life, you are golden.

May 20, 2012 5:15 AM

Simo Driw said...

wow ..beautiful story

Charlie said...

This is an extraordinary story, so touching, and yet so relatable on many levels. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life after high school to choose what I wanted to do with myself.

Like you, I also went out into the working world hoping to find a place, but it ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied and hollow. Several jobs over the next few years only deepened my dull attitude, as none were any I enjoyed.

However, it was a movie that first introduced me to the craft of carving (the 2016 remake of 'Pete's Dragon'), and then reading your blog a few months afterward got me thinking about expanding my horizons.

If you want, here is my own story about how I too became a carver (I'm on Deviantart, a worldwide artistic website:


I believe that choosing this path is the greatest choice I've yet made, and I can proudly say that I too, am now a carver. Just a novice, presently, but I hope to change that...

A truly wonderful and inspiring story!