Taking it one chip at a time

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Roger VanHaren

I have scars on my left thumb and index finger that I got from “whittling” when I was a little kid. My Grandpa Thompson had given me a very sharp jackknife and told me to be really careful with it. (I still have the knife in a drawer in the bedroom.)

I loved to whittle and to make whistles from green branches of box elder trees. Most of my whittling existed of creating “spears” or “arrows.” There was nothing very creative about my efforts. But then Grandpa suggested I should try carving from a bar of soap. He said there was nothing wasteful about it because we could use the shavings for washing our hands. Thus began an interest in carving that lay dormant until after I retired many years later.

There is an artistic side to my character. I like to draw. I loved cartooning, and I had always thought I’d like to paint after I retired, so I took a one-day class in watercolor painting. I loved it. I bought paints and brushes and all kinds of supplies.

But then my son Mike gave me a set of wood-carving tools and a block of basswood, and I started carving. I was hooked. I have never used my painting supplies.

I started, like most of my friends who are carvers, by carving Santas. I don’t know why; the block of wood Mike gave me seemed to say “Santa Claus” when I looked at it, so that’s what I did. Does that seem far-fetched? I graduated from Santas to St. Francis carvings, one of which is about 3 feet tall and resides in our backyard. I also did a 15-inch-tall Mark Twain during my Twain acting days. I have also done a complete nativity set.

A friend of mine asked me once if I could see a figure in the piece of wood I was holding. I’d never really thought about it much, but maybe there’s some truth to it. I don’t know.

Wood carving must be a lot like sculpting in stone. It’s sort of a negative process. You have to be able to understand how to “see” the parts of the carving that are closer to you and those that are farther away so that you don’t cut away a hand or a nose, for example.

There is an unlikely tale about the brilliant Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Supposedly he was asked about the difficulties that he must have encountered in sculpting his masterpiece David.

But he replied with an unassuming and comical description of his creative process: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

Wood carving is like that. You chip away anything that isn’t part of your vision. Sometimes a slip of the knife might cause you to have to change your vision a little, but that’s part of the creative process.

Some carvers like to keep their carvings “natural,” but I prefer to paint mine. The painting is almost as much fun as the carving and seems to give my work a different character. Carving is a winter time hobby for me.

I like to set up a table in front of the TV and chip away while I watch shows. That’s not possible during Packers or Badgers games, however. I can’t carve and coach at the same time. Carving creates a mess, but the wood chips are clean and easily vacuumed up after a session, so Marilyn doesn’t mind my mess.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at rjmavh@gmail.com.