Getting the Job
I managed to get the job to carve the chancel furnishings for Mt. Olive Lutheran, in White Rock B.C. primarily because the carver originally contracted for the work died unexpectedly. That means I was their second choice. But that did not bother me because the project was going to be a real challenge, and because I knew the pastor of that congregation and because, 40 years ago, my father started that parish. The connection with Mt. Olive congregation was forefront in my mind as I worked on the carvings.
Having an internet website which contained dozens of photos of my carvings, along with many pages describing the commission process, and numerous articles describing the relief carving process, made it easy for me to "describe" my work to the committee in charge of chancel furnishings. They could appraise my work without my having to send them photos via Canada Post.
My job was to help the committee identify their needs and then I was to produce preliminary drawings that expressed the themes chosen for the project, and the style of carving that would best suit it. I developed patterns that were an attempt to capture what they were envisioning. These patterns were faxed to the committee for approval. Some changes were suggested, and for the most part I complied with their wishes. After all, the carvings needed to serve the congregation, not the carver.
The project was going to involve a wide assortment of carved panels, small and large, which would be incorporated into various pieces of chancel furniture: a pulpit, an altar, an elaborate baptismal font which would be the center piece of the project, a credence table (where the bread and wine for the Lord's Supper are stored) and a processional cross.
The pulpit would require two scenes wrapping around it employing eight thin, vertical panels. The altar would depict one scene wrapping around 7 horizontal panels. The credence table was a single horizontal panel with a collage of images. The processional cross, depicting the image of the ascending Christ, was a free-standing relief sculpture.
Then there was the baptismal font. And what a font it would be. It called for four scenes (each consisting of three panels) that would surround the base of the font, so the font could be rotated (it was on casters) with the passage of the liturgical seasons to reveal four separate scenes towards the congregation. The bowl above the font was huge. It would hold 5 gallons of water, and was made of forged glass 3/4" thick, etched with words and symbols.
The furniture maker intended to stain the carvings a medium brown color to match the chancel furnishings. I balked at this because relief carving does not take stain very well, especially when the carvings are executed in red oak, with its bold figure and open grain structure. Stained carvings would look striped like a zebra. A sample of the stain was sent to me. I hummed and hawed in my shop for a couple of weeks, before finally suggesting that we try using a clear finish on the carvings. The clear finish employed a base coat of sanding sealer (oil base), which was rubbed smooth with abrasive pads. After this I applied a top coat of hardwood paste wax for a consistent sheen. It was not till I saw the carvings mounted into the stained furniture that I realized how striking and attractive the contrast was.
A second critical problem centered on the construction of the panels. I was reluctant to try to prepare panels that would later have to fit precisely into a piece of furniture. There were too many compound angles to deal with, my shop was not equipped for that type of cabinet work., and I did not possess the skills required. It was agreed that the furniture maker would prepare the panels to my specifications and ship them to me.
The Design Process
During the design process I would typically draw a pattern using the theme and text provided me by the committee, and then photo reduce the pattern so that it could be delivered via fax to the church office. Everyone was very considerate and conscious of the need to be decisive and punctual during the design process so that time would not be lost. Only four or five of the thirty patterns needed any revision, and these revisions were sensible and well conceived.
The carvings were designed to appear similar to coloring book drawings. The figures and shapes were to be simple, with clean lines and smooth surfaces, with very little fine detail or ornamentation. There were four reasons for this. First, symbolism of the images needed to be clear and uncluttered. Second, the images needed to be straight forward so that children could easily relate to them. Third, the images needed to be clearly visible from up to fifty feet away. Fourth, red oak is not the best wood for holding small detail.
The prepared panels were crated and shipped to my studio. When I had carved and finished each panel, I used the same crate to ship it back to Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. The freight delivery man became a regular visitor to my studio. Since the crates were made of 2x4 and plywood, we experienced no shipping damage during the entire project.
This project - thirty carvings in all - required many weeks to prepare patterns and twice the time again to complete the carvings. In total, the project took 22 weeks to complete, working 7-8 hours each day, totaling over 800 hours. When the last carving had been shipped, I felt as if I had lost the company of a good friend. Only the prospect of traveling to White Rock, British Columbia, for the dedication of the carvings, eased the sense of loss I was feeling.
The Mt. Olive congregation paid my airfare to bring me out for the dedication of the carvings. My wife, Deborah, accompanied me, since she was as anxious as I to see the completed project. She also wanted to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time, and to visit Vancouver and the places I lived when I was a young lad. We turned the trip into something of a second honeymoon.
I was asked to preach the sermon for that Sunday. I think the preaching assignment was the most difficult part of the project. The Mt. Olive congregation was started by my father some forty years earlier, and I knew that I would have to struggle with the flood of emotion the memories of those years would produce. I managed to survive the preaching assignment and enjoy the event none-the-less.