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The Traditionalization of Carving
(A short Essay for Discussion)

by W.F. Judt
Grande Prairie, Alberta


When I think of the word "Tradition", I almost always think of Zero Mostel, in the film production "Fiddler on the Roof". He could not make up his mind whether tradition was his friend or his enemy. It's fair to say that I share a lot of his ambivalence about "tradition" as I observe the traditionalization of carving in North America.

Recently I had an unfortunate encounter with tradition that left a sour taste in my mouth. My wife and I attended a traditional prayer service in Saskatoon for a family friend of many years who had died. The service was conducted in the native tongue of the deceased with a smattering of English. About 75 elderly people attended, including the priest and the cantors who led the people through prayers. My wife and I were the youngest people there. The air was thick with incense, and the pace of prayers was fast and steady, more a joggers pace than a prayerful one.

Only a smattering of the people in the pews occasionally joined in the prayers. It was as if their participation was not needed or even encouraged. The priest's homily was no more than 2 minutes long, spoken in broken English, and with little to offer in the way of comfort or hope in the face of the death of a loved one. What bothered me was that the Priest and the cantors did it all. The congregation of friends and family may as well have stayed home, so insignificant was their part in the prayer service.

Reflecting on this, I came to the conclusion that this type of thing happens when unhealthy traditions take over in a community. Religion of this traditional type is dead from the waist up. This was an instance of people serving tradition rather than tradition serving people.

Carving in North America is in the process of becoming traditionalized. By this I mean that carving on this continent is becoming more governed by rules and standards of acceptable practice than it has ever been, and the trend seems to be accelerating. In North America certain forms of carving being traditionalized, and that traditionalization is often unhealthy.

The fact that tradition governs carving in many other parts of the world is something that North American carvers are not generally aware of. Visit England, Bali, Mexico, Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Quebec, New Zealand, and countless other countries in the world, and take a look at the carving that comes out of these countries. In Europe the sculptures found in tourist shops all look the same. The same themes, the same woods, the same poses, the same methods of mass production, and the same guilds that regulate the carvers. Only a few carvers stand out from the crowd.

In one particular town in Quebec, you can go from shop to shop and see carvers carving the same Quebecois themes... folksy reliefs, little caricatures cloned from plywood templates hung on the wall. Carvings are intended to portray an image of what it means to come from that particular area of the country. Many of the carvings are Quebecois folklore frozen in wood.

Economics certainly have a part to play in the traditionalization of carving in Europe, Quebec and all the other places I've mentioned. Since a carver must earn a living, he learns to carve what will sell, even if it lacks individuality and creativity. To move beyond "traditional" carving is to move out of the marketing stream that provides indigenous carvers with their livelihood.

By institutionalizing carving into a trade, with apprentices, journeyman and masters, European carvers sought to secure their livelihoods, but they inadvertently contributed to the traditionalization of carving in their respective countries. Perhaps it is now more important to do it right than to do it creatively.

Ever see a creative plumber? Only a few carving trades-people manage to break the boundaries of their guilds and extend the envelope of carving excellence and expression. A few plumbers also manage to do this, mind you, inventing new materials, new techniques and new applications. These are the artists the ones who work with their hands attached to their minds and hearts.

It was said once: "He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist". Plumber or woodcarver it doesn't matter.

Tradition does not easily tolerate artists. It tolerates craftsmen, of course, and laborers too. But the artist is almost always outside the mainstream, breaking the rules and setting standards of his own.

In North America certain forms of carving are becoming traditionalized at a much faster rate than others. Wild fowl carving is perhaps the farthest down this path than all the others. It has been measured and studied, defined and regulated, organized and structured and adjudicated to the point where it is more important to the preponderance of carvers that they conform to the standards (and abide by the rules that allow them to win) than it is to be creative. Can it be that wild fowl carving, these days, is more about doing it right than doing it creatively?

Competitions have been the driving force behind the traditionalization of wild fowl carving. Big bucks are at stake, for sure, but the driving force is the desire to win. North Americans love to win for the sake of winning. Furthermore, the capacity of the North American competitor to nit-pick and bicker about what is fair and acceptable has led to a body of carving legislation and standards of adjudication which is already cumbersome and weighty. Competition leads to the traditionalization of carving. No doubt about it.

Fish carvers, mammal carvers and chip carvers are surely going to be the next to obligate themselves to the rigors of tradition. It is only a matter of time.

Now, it is important to understand that tradition is not always a bad thing. In North America carving there are many admirable traditions, some of which have become virtues in themselves. Take the tradition of sharing ideas and techniques among carvers. You don't find that in Europe. Ideas and techniques are trade secrets. Here in North America we write books in order to give our ideas away. We accept the model that states "the more you give the more you shall receive". This is a good tradition.

Another example of an admirable tradition is the way North American carvers enjoy each others company, and meet together as much to share friendship as to share carving with each other. Novices and masters (in the non-European sense of the Master Carver) rub elbows with ease.

Again, in North America carving is by-and-large a pastime. We carve to relax and to socialize. Carving is a therapy, not a vocation. We "live to carve", not "carve to live". Even the professional carvers will admit that, given the chance, they would prefer to carve for pleasure rather than profit. So much more fun!

However, when tradition tells us "this is the way it must be done" or "this is the way we must conduct ourselves", then it becomes our master rather than our servant. Keep in mind that competition (either for income or the blue ribbon) implicitly demands the establishment of standards and rules. Standards and rules become more entrenched into traditions the longer they are employed. Traditions demand obedience and compliance. They obligate us and constrain us. They fix the limits of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Traditions define the way we understand ourselves, our culture if you wish.

Traditions are inevitable. But we have a choice on which traditions we will accept and whether we will serve or be served by those traditions. When traditions protect, guide and enlighten us, they are our servants. When they stifle, compel and obligate us, we become their servants.

Forgive me if I say this, but the reason I love relief carving is that of all the major categories of carving we have in North America, it is probably the one least governed by tradition. Few books have been written about it. Few teach it. Few are comfortable adjudicating it. No rules have been written to govern it. It is a wide open field in which a carver can explore, experiment and enjoy wood. No boundaries or limits. There is room for rugged individualism.

Where do we go with this? First we have to accept that traditions are inevitable. They develop because we are human, with needs and weaknesses that make traditions both necessary and unavoidable. Second, we must know that traditions can serve us if we insist on it. Even the more rigid and suffocating traditions can be useful schoolmasters for us. Third, we have the choice of rejecting unhelpful traditions and embracing the helpful ones, in short, of embracing every tradition that serves us and rejecting every tradition that seeks to be served.

Carving in North America has not yet become so ensnared in unhealthy traditions that we cannot return to the "Y" in the road and take the other path if we need to. It's up to us. Tradition was made for man, not man for tradition.


Bill Judt