Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 5, 2012

Woodcarving – A Bit of History

Wood is, perhaps, Man’s oldest natural resource.  It has provided him with shelter, fuel, and tools since the beginning of recorded history.  Wood’s unique range of properties, qualities, and capabilities are esoteric secrets even today.  It is really quite easy to appreciate wood for its natural beauty and for its usefulness.  It is not so easy to learn its true lore.  I would argue that there is not a woodcarver alive today that does not appreciate the beauty of wood, its aroma, and its feel.  We all love to handle wood.

Then, at some mysterious time in history, art in wood was born.  No one can truly identify the very first carvings but suffice it to say, it was a very long, long, long time ago.  I suspect that art in wood followed naturally behind tools and implements as Man began to decorate them with simple designs.  From there, there was likely a magical moment when Man decided that art in wood was itself a noble task.  From there, art in wood took on a life of its own and the rest is, as they say, “history.”

Wood offered the perfect medium.  It was easy to come by, it was affordable, if not down right free, it was easy to work and it was relatively light weight in comparison to, say, stone.  It was the common material of folk art and primitive sculpture which Man greatly admired, and its use entailed carving rather than the work of academic sculptures who were trained to create a model in clay.

To carve wood is an ancient, often difficult, irreversible task requiring the artist to gradually release the form “seen” or “found” within a block of wood… instead of building up a form with some soft, malleable material.

However, somewhere along the line in wood carving’s long history, the art form seems to have become lost in what was considered the civilized world… perhaps during the Renaissance.  Please don’t laugh at my use of the word “civilized.”  Then, again as if by magic, wood carving sprang forth once again in through-out Europe, Russia, and Asia.  Great master woodcarvers were born.  Examples include the famous Tilman Riemenschneider… an amazing sculptor, and many others.  Initially, for some reason, the woodcarver held a relatively lowly place in the social scale as compared to other artisans  such as the stone mason.  Even the early wood carver consider his work to be second rate compared to the stone mason.  But, he also hoped that if his woodcarving was quilded, perhaps it would be undistinguishable from stone.  Actually even today, wood is considered second rate to stone and bronze.  I can make a bronze reproduction of one of my original woodcarvings and sell it for twice the price of the original… go figure.

One place where a woodcarver seemed to have proper respect was in early churches and houses of worship.  That is where Riemenschneider gained notoriety.  Many old churches in Europe are adorned with beautiful wood carvings.  One reason the woodcarver was encouraged within these churches was due to a growing popularity in natural foliage as a decorative motif as compared to stiff, un-natural, stiff, stylized designs that dominated the middle ages.  Truly, a stop at some of Europe’s most fomous old churches will make a woodcarver’s heart sing.

At the same time, an in much of the Middle East and Northern Africa, where there is little native woods, produced beautiful woodwork.  In part due to wood’s scarcity, panels and the like were made of many small pieces of finely carved wood pieced together.  Wood in this world was as cherished as ivory.

It is this writer’s belief that once agin, in our own times, we have seen a decline in wood artists.  Sure, we see them in our clubs and featured in our carving magazines but do we see them in public?  When was the last time you saw a new building constructed with the inclusion of wood art?  Today, it seems that most woodcarving is a hobby craft and even then, our cherished craft is not being picked up by today’s youth.  They would rather be playing with an electronic game.  Creativity seems to have been reduced to slaying an imaginary opponent with a laser sword.

As all things are cyclical, perhaps an interest in wood carving will return… I certainly hope so.  In the mean time, I believe we woodcarvers can all stand tall in knowing that we create beauty and a legacy for future times.  In the mean time, let us all make a commitment to interest the young and teach them woodcarving.

Keep Sharp!

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  1. I so agree that our art has become lost to the world of “Fake art” which is junk that is just mass produced for a quick buck. Also I feel there is a lack of proper education to the real value of skillful art.

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