Emil Janel is a familiar name to most wood carvers, the world around. Mr. Janel was not what is currently billed as a typical caricature carver however; I suspect that he has served as an inspiration to thousands of carvers. Mr. Janel referred to his brand of carving as “exaggerated realism.” Most often, the subjects of Mr. Janel’s carvings were men who exuded the personalities of their professions or interests. They were the sort of fellows that you might expect to find in the pool rooms of the 1940’s or sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. Mr. Janel referred to his subjects as “kindly mature people.” One only need to look a Janel carving to agree with that statement.
Emil Janel was born in Orsa, Sweden in 1896 (some references state 1897) and immigrated to Canada in 1923. In the late 1920s Janel moved to San Francisco (with a brief stay in Seattle on the way) where he could make a better living from his carving utilizing San Francisco’s famous galleries. Janel carved mostly alder wood from the Pacific Northwest and he often fell his own trees. He is said to have favored alder for their natural flesh tones. And, I am not sure it’s true but I was told that he liked to fell his own trees because most sawyers were not careful enough to ensuring a soft fall of a tree. Alder is a wet wood and is prone to split vitually the minute it hits the ground.
Emil Janel carved all of his life, beginning in Sweden when his father gave him a basic knife at age six. Emil became quite famous for his carvings as a youth and at age 14 won a national woodcarving competition. He was asked by more than one famous artist of the time to work with them as they saw a rather incredible and unusual talent in this very young man.
His carvings were, for the most part, about 18 inches high if the figure was standing and about a foot high if sitting. His carvings in process were kept submerged in water to keep them wet while he worked on them. He held his projects in process between his knees rather than to use a vice of any kind. When completed, Mr. Janel would use aniline dyes on the portions of the carvings that were not flesh. His carvings are unmistakable and his style is most obvious. Janel spent somewhere between 1 and 2 weeks to complete a typical carving and he kept his unfinished work soaking in water to keep it soft while he worked on it. And, I understand that he pretty much used full sized gouges and knives. Before his death at 84, Janel had won world acclaim.
I first became aware of Emil Janel in the early 1970s when I read about him and saw pictures of his work featured in E.J. Tangerman’s Modern Book of Whittling and Woodcarving. Specifically, I remember a complex carving of seven old gentlemen playing cards. At the time, I was struggling to carve faces and here, in Janel’s work, I saw character and personality beyond what I ever dreamed as possible to carve. Mr. Janel was quickly added to my short list of carving heroes.
In addition to Mr. Janel’s incredible carving ability he was also a bit of a philosopher. There are two great quotes credited to him that I will always remember: (1) “Only age and experience give character; the young have little to say”, and (2) “I don’t follow anyone. Anyone who follows is always behind.”
One of the most remarkable things about the left-handed Janel is that he never used pictures or sketches, no clay models or even markings on the wood. Everything was created from memory, as he said his “inner eye.” How cool is that?!!
Emil Janel died in 1981 and left the world a legacy of wonderful carvings. One thing that he left behind that is not measurable is his enormous influence on all carvers that follow him.
Perhaps the best reference work on the late Mr. Janel is Master American Woodcarver Emil Janel published in 1984 and written by Ira Weismann and John Mathews. While the book is out of print, it is available at larger libraries, in the secondary market, and is often included in the collections of woodcarving clubs.
The following are just a few examples of Emil Janel’s work.
As you can see, Emil Janel was not a typical caricature carver. These carvings illustrate real life during Emil Janel’s early years. I wished I could have known him. I am sure the kindness in each of his subjects was because it existed in himself.
Keep sharp and happy carving!
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