"From Primitive to Precious"

by W.F. (Bill) Judt

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Gentle readers:

A while back there appeared a message on the Woodcarver Mailing List that caught my attention in a sentimental sort of way. It had to do with novice carvings and what becomes of them.

It was Richard Keller who wrote to the mailing list:
"Fortunately, I have friends and relatives who do not know what a good carving looks like and who accept my gifts with (some) pleasure. If I didn't have these kind people, I would have to build an addition to our house to store my carvings.The best thing that I can say for my carvings is that none have been returned for full credit or exchange."

I found myself responding to his message as follows:
"The fact is that all of us (some more than others) must rely on the generosity/ignorance of our families and friends if we are to be rid of the carvings we make while we are learning our craft. My family owns all of my earliest mistakes, which, BTW, have become family heirlooms of sorts. Strange how a little love can turn "primitive" into "precious". Hey! That's a good line, eh? "Primitive into Precious". That ought to be the basis of another article...."

Here is the article that has been brewing in my mind since then.

From Primitive to Precious

This first couple dozen carvings I made were given away to family and friends. I can't remember what all of them were about, it was so long ago. Some were received politely, but a couple, I am sure, were likely received in a more obligatory fashion.

I gave two of my earliest carvings to my brother. Neither were ever hung on the wall. I remember visiting his home years later... a real nice, large new home in the country,.. and finding one of the carvings between a wall and the back of a china cabinet. The other one was stored in the back of a closet, as I recall. Neither carving was a masterpiece, you understand, but neither did they received anything close to the same attention and vocal approval lavished on their children's "artwork" which they hung on the doors of their refrigerator and collected in their family scrapbooks. It saddens me to know that what I worked so hard to create and enjoyed so much in giving was not appreciated as I had hoped.

That, unfortunately, is the way it is within families. Did Picasso's first efforts receive the same treatment from his family? What about Emily Carr or Monet? The Bible tells us that even Jesus of Nazareth felt the same thing in his day coming from his own "family". Having shared his unique gifts with his townspeople, he was left to comment on their cruel rejection by saying "a prophet is never accepted in his own country". Neither are budding artists accepted by their families, I suppose. The consolation of this, however, is that I am in good company.

Last year I visited the home of some friends, avid bargain hunters whom I know from the garage-sale circuit in Grande Prairie. They wanted to show me something they had found, apparently for an unbelievable bargain, at a local garage sale. Turns out it was one of my earliest carvings titled "Winged Chalice", about 12" square out of Elm. I had given this carving as a gift to a friend in 1978. He had hung it on the wall of his mother's house and it became the part of his mother's estate nearly 20 years later, to be sold after her death at the family garage sale.

The funny thing is that my garage sale-ing friends were embarrassed to show me the carving and to have to tell me they "found" it at a garage sale (price undisclosed), and yet quite proud of their good fortune in having an "early Judt", as they so politely put it, for next to nothing, :-)

I tried to convince them to sell it to me, but they firmly refused. I was a bit annoyed, as my intention was to regain possession of one of my oldest carvings and restore it to a place of honor in my home, a testament to how far I had come as a carver. But after the sting of their refusal had worn off, it was clear that they respected my work and were proud to have one of my carvings. Primitive though it was, it was precious to them. And at such a price, you wouldn't believe!

I use to jokingly say that in giving my earliest carvings to family and friends, I was giving away my mistakes. Furthermore, I smugly observed that doing so meant that I could satisfy my family obligations without having to give them my better work at a later date. Funny how the tables have turned. Even before my own family saw the worth of these early carvings, I had begun in my own mind to transform them from "primitive" to the "precious"

Two years ago, at a family reunion in Winnipeg Manitoba (known to southerners as WINTERpeg, ManiSNOWba) I visited my Uncle Luther's home for supper. He made a point of bringing out another "early Judt" for me to see. There was no dust on this carving (am 10" x 10" heraldic lion rampant), much to my surprise. He had kept it as a memento of the year I lived close to him in Winnipeg during my college years. He had my wife and I over for many a meal and the carving was meant to express my gratitude for his kindness during that year. It was really primitive. But I remember carving that piece of red oak while kneeling on a blanket on the living room floor of our apartment the year my wife and I were first married.

It seemed that my Uncle treasured that little carving, modest as it was. This I attribute to the fact that he too is a craftsman, a furniture maker, of considerable talent in fact, who also treasures his earliest pieces for much the same reasons as I have come to treasure mine.

I have come to understand that carvings are like people... they do not have to be beautiful or refined to be precious. Even the ugliest carving, given some love, becomes beautiful eventually.

I have taken this discovery to heart and applied this understanding to my present work. Since I do mostly custom relief carving, much of which is commissioned as gifts for family and friends, I find myself more and more making what I have termed "heirloom carvings". Customers come to me asking that I carve for them a special gift, to be given to a loved one. I know instinctively that they are not asking for a work of "art" as much as they are asking for something that with time will become "precious". They want a carving that can be handed down through the generations. They want a carving to represent their memories, their convictions, their devotion, their heritage and their passions. For these customers, beauty is understood as something that an carving acquires, NOT something that it is created with.

The novice carver needs to take these things to heart, and ponder them seriously. What he/she carves early on might someday be more precious than the later masterpiece which springs from the potent combination of talent and expertise.

I conduct "mixed" carving classes, that is, where novice and advanced carvers mix together. I tell all my novice students that the experienced carvers will look to them for evidence of how far they have come. And I tell my experienced carvers that the novice carvers will be looking to them to see where they will be going. Of all the carvings most treasured by all my experienced carvers, is the little 8" by 8" birdie they carve in 1" birch as their first instructional piece. Not one of them would give theirs away, except to a grandchild as a keepsake, perhaps.

Carvers who are driven by perfectionist tendencies or the desire for fame and recognition need to pause and reflect on the transformation of the "primitive" to the "precious".

We carvers need to remember as we strive for greatness in our carvings and as we reach for excellence in our art, that our most precious work is not determined by measuring diligent effort or lofty achievement, but by the simple passage of time.

We do ourselves a favor when we accept this fact of life. It frees us to carve with eagerness. It frees us from the burden of self-disapproval. Just knowing that sooner or later our work will take that special journey, moving from what was in our minds primitive, to what is, in the minds of someone else, a precious work... a treasure.

I will give my brother some more time, perhaps a few more decades, to allow the carvings he has hidden in the dark corners of his house to turn from primitive to precious. I know that day will eventually come. And I feel better for it.

Bill Judt

W.F. (Bill) Judt welcomes comments and suggestions about this article. You can reach him by email at: bjudt@sk.sympatico.ca or you may visit his collection of websites at http://wwwoodcarver.com

Bill is a full-time relief carver in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada (see map) and an active promoter of woodcarving on the internet.