How YouTube made me a Cincinnati woodcarver and amateur historian
There is an incredible satisfaction that comes when carving. When the blade glides across the wood, blowing softly to remove the small shavings, even the rough banging of the mallet all serve to calm the mind. The workshop has become my temple, my station a palace of meditation. In the stale air of floating sawdust, under the warm 100 watt bulbs, I sweat, rub calluses, hunch over the table till my back calcifies, and swear every time the gouge cuts too deep. This is my violent reverie, where I carve away my anxiety and stress against the soft basswood grain.
My story is one of thousands, a discovery of talent, the process of fostering technique. However, the history behind my path, and how I came about learning of it, is the real story.
It started, like many modern journeys, with Youtube. I can’t remember how I came about the first video, but before I knew it my off hours were filled with videos of master craftsmen carving giant pieces of furniture and art. I bought a cheap, chinese-produced chisel set online, and spent three hours accidentally poisoning myself by carving into an old two-by-four plank. I didn’t learn until months later that the chemicals used to treat that particular wood are poisonous to inhale or ingest. I finished the piece with minimal injuries, no permanent poisoning effects, and from then on I was hooked. Thankfully, I stumbled upon a class listing for wood carving from my own college before I could injure myself any more.
Through this once a week class, and my own research into the topic, I became well acquainted with the world of wood crafts. In essence, wood carving has been a constant practice in human society. Any caveman with a primitive blade could whittle down a branch into a spear, and as society progressed, so too did the practice. Unfortunately, due to the organic nature of wood, relics and artifacts in this medium do not tend to survive. There are a few rare specimens: the eleven wood plaques found in the tomb of Pharaoh Hesy-Ra and the Shigir Idol both date back to BCE; however, the chances of finding more pieces from this era are akin to discovering an ancient, one horned ancestor to the horse.
Woodworking, and woodcarving by extension, was used in every facet of life, from creating utensils, weapons, jewelry, houses, all the way up to royal palaces.
When I started taking an evening wood carving class last fall, I expected to be the minority; a young girl surrounded by 40 to 60-something old men. Yet, to my surprise, the odds were an even 3 to 3. I became part of the trio of young, 20-something girls interested in this ancient art: Tiffany, Ava, and “Agnes”, venturing into the “boys club” of woodworking. It wasn’t until this spring I realized how wrong my assumptions were, and fell down the rabbit hole of niche american history.
The building was silent, yellow lights the size of ceiling tiles managing not to flicker, though so many of their kind do. Stepping into the classroom felt surreal, the setup foreign yet familiar. The room had a peculiar shape, the entrance a jumble of tall tables, stools, and desks, with two squat wings on the far sides. To the left wing, metal storage cases bolted together, the right nearly empty, two solitary work stations facing the open room. Large white tables, slanted at an angle toward the chairs, stood in a line like stained teeth in the middle of the classroom. I thought of the cheshire cat, a smile full of malevolence. Curious eyes scanned like x-rays, a line of students sitting, waiting to begin. The last table was empty, a “tooth” of my own, so I made my way toward it.
The first piece was simple, a stylized swan bust. We were given a long, flat piece of simple butternut, pale amber under the table lamps, cut to the rough outline starting from the base of the neck. We did not even begin to tackle the carving for the first week. First, we had to sharpen our carving knives by hand.
“No matter how many tools and machines you get, it means nothing if you don’t first know how to do it by hand.” The teacher spoke as he worked, dropping a thick red oil onto a carving stone. He set a rapid pace grinding metal against mineral, creating a fine edge. If he had to look up, he froze, so attuned to working with dangerous objects that safety became second nature. His instruction over, he set us loose with our own materials.
It doesn’t take a genius to know spending three hours dragging a knife across stone gets tiring around the hour mark.
By the next class we began carving. We only had one tool; a small knife, about two inches long, in a rounded wood handle. We began rounding the edges of the wood, running the blade across the grain, down grain, but never up.
“Never cut up the grain, if you catch a fiber you could mess up the whole piece.”
Eventually, we had some semblance of a swan head, but the process was far from over. In my spare time outside of class, I became curious.
It was easy for me to find more examples of carving, all I had to do was walk through any church built 100 years ago; any old church in the area was sure to have its fair amount of ornate designs, especially the catholic faith. I happened to be performing in a choir at the cathedral basilica in Kentucky, and before I knew it I was ranting to my fellow choir members about the intricacies and styles of the designs. However, my best source of woodworking was at the Cincinnati Art Museum. I had been visiting the museum for years, and each time I had simply glanced through the Cincinnati wing, never realizing just how influential the city was to woodcarving.
To simplify, the colonists began settling in Ohio before the ink was dry on the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. By 1800 Cincinnati was on its way to becoming the third largest in the state; a mecca of trade and industry along the Ohio River. In the 1850’s the city was a major center of furniture manufacturing, so master crafters had little trouble establishing their own carving companies. And what a time to be carving too, creating the first modern designs of the new world and the new age, in a time when ideas of an artistic renaissance was prevalent in the public eye. In the 1870’s the first wood carving classes opened in Cincinnati; both private lessons and open workshops at the McMicken College School of Design.
In the first class session, over 100 women were documented as attending, in the same college I currently attend. In comparison, only 23 men were recorded on the roster that year. On average, for the entire time the course was offered, the ratio of men to women was 8 to 1, and there were only two year in the history of the course where there were more male students than females. From 1870 to 1920, women were the majority of wood carvers in Cincinnati; 9 women went on to become carving instructors of their own, 9 became professional carvers, and over 100 women were confirmed to have worked on large public installations around Cincinnati, including the cover of the Cincinnati Music Hall organ.
Most of these women were the same as I was: young, interested in craftsmanship, willing to learn and grow, eager to hone their craft. Thankfully in this era I am not required to wear a corset while I work.
Some of the most well-known women carvers I found were Emma Bepler and Agnes Pitman. On a recent trip to the Cincinnati Art Museum, I was able to personally admire their work. The fireplace mantel and overmantel by Bepler stands over 7 feet tall, with 20 distinct designed panels from top to bottom. It towered over me, the arched panels across the top sweeping like waves in floral designs. Underneath, in a glass case, are some of the tools she personally used, marked and worn by her many projects. Agnes Pitman’s piece is subtle, a chest of 6 drawers with blooming flowers arranged in order of the seasons, designed as a present for her mother.
Both pieces would have taken a month of continuous work from dusk to dawn to carve, not to mention the time it would take to sand and varnish. I spent hours admiring their work, searching the edges for any mistakes, pleased yet frustrated at finding none. To be honest, I struggled not to run my fingers over every piece in the room like a giddy child. They were at the center of the art, masters of the craft. Yet, they were simply young women, just like me.
In the next class, I was determined to become better. I could feel the energy of Bepler and Pitman through their pieces, and fed it into my own resolve.
Each week I sat between the two other girls; Ava, a painter waif with hair like a frosted cloud, and “Agnes”, a raven haired history major with archana card tattoos across her shoulders. In truth, I honestly do not remember her name, we never talked beyond a polite hello and goodbye, so in my mind her name has become “Agnes”; an humorous homage to what I had learned.
“Always make two,” Mr. Belcher preaches, “one to figure out the piece, another to figure out the mistakes you made on the first.”
We don’t tend to pause anymore, so used to the roll of stories and advice in our instructor’s rough drawl. His voice is like sandpaper, a casualty of 40 years inhaling sawdust, yet soothing over the sound of blades slicing wood.
“Then, you’re ready to start making products. The more you recreate that piece, the faster you go.” I looked up, back popping, as Mr. Belcher held up a carved house shaped like a shoe. It was the size of an apple, with a light inside that shone through fabricated windows.
“It used to take me two hours to carve one of these, now I can finish one in thirty minutes.” He grinned, “I’ve made thousands, and at 60 dollars a piece you can see how it adds up…”
Sometimes Mr. Belcher seems like a genius, a wood carving wizard, then he breaks out into a story about how he had a rifle under his front porch for a year and didn’t even know it, and the feeling fades.
Fingers numb, I held up the finished product, smooth and rosy brown. It took three weeks of classes to form, and another three to sand and oil. My first official piece of woodwork. The class wasn’t over, we still had two more projects to go, but neither was I.