Visit any woodcarving show and you'll likely to see them; carvings that you recognize as having been carved from roughouts, or in a class from a noted instructor, or a close reproduction from a popular carving book. Such carvings frequently exhibit excellent technical carving skill and often win ribbons even though the original carving was designed by someone else.
Clearly roughouts, class projects and commercial patterns have a good and useful place in the world of woodcarving: they are extremely valuable in teaching and learning, particularly for the new carver. They are useful for those of us who may feel "creatively challenged" from time to time, or want a quick project for a gift. They can serve as a jumping off point for those willing and able to push the creative envelope. Just as clearly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using such things in your carving activity.
Still the question arises: are carvings from roughouts, class projects or close copies of commercial patterns appropriate in judged woodcarving competitions?
Ask any ten carvers and you will likely get a dozen different answers - so WOM did just that. Editor Matt Kelley invited a cross-section of 'Net active carvers to participate in a virtual panel discussion on just this topic - highlights of that very interesting discussion follow below. The results are thought-provoking, and will likely prompt considerably more discussion.
Participants in the panel included:
The panel discussion began with a basic question and a few caveats:
The Topic: Is there a place for roughouts, bandsawn blanks, work from other's patterns, and "instructor-assisted" carvings in the judged section of carving competition?
1) It is agreed that these items certainly have an important place in the world of carving, particularly as they assist in teaching and learning carving.
2) Some carvers are perfectly content to work from patterns and roughouts, and have neither the desire or need to progress onward to developing more "original pieces." This a personal decision and is clearly an acceptable posture.
The finer issue is: should roughouts, etc be included in carving competition, and if so, how are they to be judged against "original" work.
Susan Irish was one of the first to respond she wrote in part:
I think that first we need to define the reason and motives behind the competition itself before you can begin defining what does and does not qualify to be entered for judging. Every competition has some basic reason for being created, either to promote a local club, to promote an industry, to promote a particular region for tourism ...
Very few competitions are based on discovering the best artwork or artist ... they are based on self-promotion for the organization that is sponsoring it.
So, what type of competition are we looking at? Or is your question more philosophical ... what is art and what is craft and what is hobby level work. What defines the difference between the levels of our art, hobbyist, craftsman, and wood artist?
I keep pounding the issue (of original work in shows) because I think it is vital to the growth of wood carving. So long as wood carvers are perceived as "kit carvers" we won't be taken seriously. The way to change that is to get our own shows to really reward originality. To do that, people must gain an understanding of what originality really is. Is it merely being "different?" "How many notes do you have to change in 'Hey Jude', etc." What does the art world at large consider to be originality? How can we encourage carvers to prize original work so that, instead of recycling the same old patterns, carvers will start drawing from their own experiences and expressing who they are.?
I've always felt that the end product of what we create is only a small portion of the value of the work. Most of the work's value comes from the journey the carver takes doing the work. Two carvers working side by side, one experienced and the other carver working on their first carving, are equally as happy while they are carving. That happiness is the true value of the work. The greatest thing about it is that we can repeat this feeling of happiness over and over again.
This discussion should include the issue of a piece done in a seminar, even if the design was the student's original piece, and even if the instructor never touched a tool to it. When I taught the relief carving class at Red Deer College last summer I had a few patterns the students could choose from, however most of them brought their own ideas of what they wanted to do.
Even though a student had worked on their original design, a nude in a box, a portrait of the carvers father, a bible passage of the Good Samaritan, a cowboy, Prairie Sentinel, etc, each carving looked very similar to my work even through I didn't lay a tool on any of these pieces. I feel just by my directing the cut, each work resembled my style more than the style of the student.
Perhaps a roughout or any piece done in a class environment is more an example of the teaching skills of the instructor rather than the skill level of the student.
Ivan expressed very good concepts of originality. I agree with those concepts. I feel if these concepts were followed by all competitive woodcarving shows, the art of woodcarving would come closer to being accepted in the world of fine gallery art.
Susan raises an interesting point.
A local club may decide (if only by default) to not differentiate between "original" pieces and pieces from roughouts/class carvings/commercial patterns. There is nothing inherently wrong with this and it is perfectly acceptable.
On the other hand, if one of the purposes of a carving organization is to promote the art (and craft) of woodcarving, then it seems a decision to judge "original" pieces separately from others is appropriate and desirable to support that end. A number of clubs already have categories for carvings from roughouts or for "instructor-assisted" work
I would suggest that having categories like those above is a step that allows recognition and encouragement of less experienced carvers (or carvers that have no desire to progress beyond that point,) while allowing a higher level of competition that will in the long run tend to help give woodcarving its rightful place among the "arts."
"Ol' Don" Burgdorf:
Is there a place in competition for carvings created from roughouts, class projects, cutouts or commercial patterns? Yes!! Most shows have a novice class so we're not talking about beginners but experienced carvers who, for whatever reason, choose to make use of these conveniences and I feel they should receive the encouragement of their peers that a ribbon or some prize money can offer. They should not be penalized for making use of an available option.
HOWEVER, I have felt "forever" that carvings done under those circumstances should be judged in separate categories against other "clone type" carvings so that carvers who create something that has never been done before can receive due credit for the time and effort it requires to design and carve a unique one-of-a-kind piece. Originality deserves much more recognition that it has received.
It seems the execution of a piece is the priority and in show after show we see a percentage of the top prizes given to carvings that we've seen done over and over before. That's not to say they aren't well done. It is to say they should be in a class by themselves and more attention should be given to originality of design when it comes to evaluating carvings in competition.
Unless a show specifically prohibits starting with these roughouts, they should be allowed. Most roughouts today offer plenty of wood on them to be creative and add your own touch. I am told some European roughouts are practically ready to finish, needing only a light going over. That is why every tourist piece coming out of Oberammergau looks the same, there is no room for variety from the blank. At the same time that the blanks are allowed, then perhaps there ought to be added consideration for originality, not deductions for using a blank. Then someone who designed the piece, as well as carved it, gets a better chance at being rewarded for their effort.
So what do my thoughts boil down to? If a show is intended to showcase carvers talents, give out a number of ribbons to make club members happy, and let the public see what some of us do in our spare time, then roughouts, class work and patterns are probably acceptable, particularly in the novice and intermediate classes. Once a show takes on the mantle of an "Art" show, with cash, serious judging that is done by qualified experts, etc, then we truly need to think about each carving as a piece of original artwork. All involved need to insure that an entry is truly original and unique to the carver submitting it, and that there is more skill involved in it's creation than following a book, teacher, or other outside inspiration.
Many people just enjoy carving for its own sake and the joy of having someone enjoy what they have completed or created. To look down our nose at someone who perhaps doesn't possess the creativity or desire to carve something from a block of wood or a log is arrogant and a little high minded, in my opinion. At the same time for someone to try to pass off their rendition of someone else's designed roughout as completely their creation is dishonest and disrespectful. I think both of these are equally shameful and do equal damage to a person's character. In judged competitions, I see no harm in someone using a carving from someone else's roughout in a category that specifies that fact. I do think it unfair for that same carving to be included in a category for original carvings.
I see nothing wrong with having different categories for roughouts, bandsawn blanks, works from other's patterns, and instructor-assisted carvings in any show. I would hope that most contestants would acknowledge and give due credit to the original creators of each, I think that only fair.
I was the person with the "nude in the box" at Red Deer that Joe referred to. By the way, I am less inclined to feel that the result is an expression of his style so much as a melding of our two somewhat different approaches to the project. However, he is definitely the more experienced of us and is probably better able to judge that.
My carving mentor here in Saskatoon has always felt that rough-outs were perfectly acceptable because there was plenty of room for individual interpretation of the subject. My initial reaction to his line of reasoning was that while the carving would have individual characteristics, the overall composition was someone else's idea and therefore was somewhat "lesser among equals". I was coming at it from how we judge technical presentations where innovation/originality is one of several categories used. Therefore, if I were the judge, a carver working from a rough-out would score a zero for innovation or originality. This would not eliminate the carving from the competition, but it would be a severe penalty if originality was worth say 20% of the total mark.
However, I also have a good friend who is a professor of music and whose research has involved trying to understand creativity. The word "composition" in the above line of thinking, got me thinking about music competitions and the old discussion of carving as art versus craft. The playing of music is considered a fine art even though the musician rarely is the composer. I asked my musician friend this question: why is the playing of music considered art when there is no "originality" in the music. His answer was that a musician was being an artist when he/she is able to express the particular piece of music in a way that he/she intends. That is, the musician is putting his/her own interpretation to the music. But the crux of it is, the musician is able to do so intentionally. By extension, my musician friend and I agreed, carving from someone else's pattern (or rough-out) would be art (rather than craft) if the carver sets out to create an effect or a rendition and is then able to do so. Also by extension, the carver should give credit for the original "composition" just as a musician does, whether in competition or in recital.
I give by way of example from my own experience the following. I took a class from Allan McKay, a member of the Caricature Carvers of America, on one of his roughouts of a mean gunfighter. After looking at his carvings, what I saw was a cowboy who was getting up on the morning after a big drunk in which he got in a brawl and acquired a black eye. He was trying to open his cold can of beans for breakfast, but couldn't find a can opener, so he was going for his gun to try to shoot it open. This was an entirely different "pose" than anything Al had done from that rough-out, although I did include the bent cigarette dangling from the mouth as per his original composition. In the end, I was able to achieve the effect that I started out looking for. Of course, I made use of Al's advice on carving faces and eyes and all those things that go along with a course. I also used his advice on painting, although I did all the mixing myself.
I personally wouldn't enter this piece in a competition because I want to be judged on my composition plus execution. However, by the above definition of art as an original expression of someone else's composition, I definitely feel that I created a piece of art rather than just duplicating Al's carving by good craftsmanship. In fact, it probably wasn't particularly good craftsmanship, although I was pleased with it at the time.
The issue of "art versus craft" is related to the use of rough-outs in competitions. Allowing rough-outs in competitions implies that there is sufficient room for individual expression or interpretation that the carver has gone beyond merely duplicating the original. For most rough-outs this is probably true. There is enough wood left to allow changing positions or expressions such that it becomes that carver's understanding of the composition.
Therefore, I think there should be room in competitions (not necessarily all competitions) for carvings done from rough-outs. However, it should be mandatory that acknowledgement be given of the source of the rough-out. I would include in this any work based on someone else's pattern. This is not just a matter of art versus craft, but it is also a legal/ethical issue of giving due credit for the original idea.
To me it is unfortunate that so much emphasis is put on competition rather than on display or show. Why do we need the motivation of a ribbon in order to let the public see our work?
I agree with Vic's comments about added points for originality. One of our best local realistic bird carvers who has competed successfully at national and international competitions has told me that he envies the freedom that I have with my stylized birds and animals when entering them in competitions. Apparently the realistic bird carvings are judged so rigorously on anatomical correctness and texturing/painting that it is severely stifling originality of presentation. We should work at encouraging originality rather than discouraging it.
As a teacher who's focus is on the most novice of all carvers, the ones that are just for the first time picking up a knife and blank, I personally feel that it would be extremely inappropriate of me to compete against these students in any way. If they are showing works that have been adapted from my patterns or instructions then I think that that's great. For a novice to learn they need guidance, ideas, and someone to gently direct the progress of the work. They don't need to 'lose' to someone who has spent their entire professional career as a craftsman and artist!
Ivan wrote: "What if, say, half of these carvers, instead of making copies, tried developing their own styles, drawing on their own experiences? Would we develop a carver who explored her childhood on the farm and turned into a carving "Grandma Moses?" Would we develop a carver who experimented with abstraction and stylization? Would we get carvers who drew from their occupations, say, former electrical linemen who used their knowledge of that occupation to help us see that better? Would a carver emerge who observes the people in his urban neighborhood and gives us character sketches of those people? "
Now Ivan, I think you went and changed the subject, perhaps without realizing it....
I believe that those people that have a desire to be wood carvers do exactly what you have said, learn to make their own designs, experiment with styles and approaches, and eventually establish themselves as master craftsman. I believe that those of us that would be considered professional carvers, meaning that we specialize in some area of wood carving for income, already had some artist direction in our lives with which to begin.
Today's life style is so different than even one hundred years ago and I believe that this must be considered.
Today, we spend the first 17 to 22 years stuffed into a structured class room, then we head off to work. A big chunk of the day is spent behind the wheel on some crowded highway. Once we get to work its a long day of telephones, computers, and paper work. All of this just to get home before the 10 o'clock evening news in over. At the end of any given day the average worker has nothing tangible to show for his or her day's task. There's no carving, no three more inches of crochet, there is only some stacks of paper that have been sent off to someone else's desk for tomorrow's work.
Where is the 'doing things by hand' in all of this ??? I would estimate that 80% to 90% of the newbie carvers we talk to state that they have never tried anything artistic. They will recite some high school art project as their one and only attempt at art. They don't have time, they don't have someone in the house doing a craft that they can watch and learn. They have no basis on which to begin. There is no foundation in today's life style for the arts and crafts.
Picking up a rough-out, buying a knife, and getting an instruction book may well be their first experience with anyone doing something artistic. They try it, it turns out OK, everyone in the house is watching like hawks because they sure have never seen anyone carve! This is magic! There are lots of "Oh look what you did, it's wonderful". And they get excited about wood carving.
When they start out they don't even have an idea of what they want to carve let alone how to draw the pattern themselves. One of the most common questions we get is "how do I get the pattern on to the wood?". At the beginning of my teaching career and as someone trained in the arts, this seemed so basic to me that I just could not imagine that anyone would not know about carbon paper or graphite ... But they don't know!
So, in some type of conclusion to this long epic, rough-outs, kits, pre-make patterns, and step-by-step book instructions have a very important place in our craft. It's today's substitution to watching Grandpa sit of the front steps, next to the old hound dog, whittlin' on a stick!!! If you chose to leave these "tools" for the novice or hobby carver out of competition then you have just eliminated the vast majority of people doing wood carving today. I, personally, see these items as that, tools for the hobby crafter, just like a bench knife or round gouge. These are the tools they use to express themselves through carving.
"Ol' Don" Burgdorf:
It would seem several of us have traveled similar roads getting to this point in time-- first the fine art experience, later the carving interest.
Because of the acceptable standards of what was "in" at the time, I became quite frustrated and dropped out of the collegiate level of training and pursued my painting interests at the hobbyist level even though I had, through scholastic competition, won scholarship assistance. That is what the "juried" approach did for me as far as my frame of mind in the 1950s. Though I received a great deal of encouragement, my subject matter and impressionistic style of painting didn't fit in with the galleries interests so I showed my painting efforts in "sidewalk art shows" and other non-juried venues.
Now years later and focused more on carving than painting, I still create to please myself as I did then, doing what I find relaxing and what brings me pleasure only to find the subjects I enjoy carving most don't fit the stereotype. My carvings are too realistic to be caricatures and to caricaturized to be realistic. Alas, I'm still a man without a country.
This gets back to the standards by which pieces are judged. As has been implied, who sets the standard of what a piece is supposed to look like? I know in the caricature classes what started as the "Enlow look" usually prevails-- the oversize head, big hands and big feet. I guess if that's what expected and if I want to compete, that's how I should make my figures look in spite of the fact that I enjoy a little exaggeration but don't care for extreme distortion in my figures.
This overlaps into the marketing of carvings as well. Why does the general public feel a certain type or style of carving is supposed to look a certain way or it isn't worth investing in? Is this an extension of the juried system? It seems if the public sees a ribbon on a carving they would conclude that is the standard of acceptance by which other similar carvings should be evaluated.
Judging is by it's nature a biased system of evaluating a carving because once you get past evaluating basic skill considerations, the judge's personal preferences will almost always play a major role. That's a given because of human nature and gets back to what is good or what isn't? Who's a winner and who are the losers.
For these reasons I choose to carve what pleases me in a style I'm comfortable with. I still endeavor to improve my technical skills but have little interest in making my carvings fit a stereotype image for the sake of competition. As I said in one of my poems, I choose to carve for folk who know little about such things.
The point I'm making as that with the verities of judging, the demands of shows should not be the over-riding argument for encouraging originality. Simply honesty should--and the quest for a growing, dynamic art form. Shows can support that by encouraging originality, too. The fact that our school systems have generally botched the nurturing of artistic creativity doesn't mean adults are forever doomed to be derivative in their artistic efforts. A teacher who chooses to do so can get the students creating their own patterns immediately, just as an art teacher can hand out pencil and paper instead of mimeographed pictures--which too often happened when I was an art supervisor in the schools. Studies have shown that most adults have untapped creativity--that their creative skills can, indeed, be developed. Let's just try to help carvers along by rewarding their original efforts more than their derived efforts, whether that be in our teaching or our show judging.
Obviously, just as in any craft there are three levels to wood carving; hobbyists, craftsmen, and artists. Hobbyists are those that enjoy wood carving, use it as a way to relax, fill time, and maybe create a few pieces that eventually will become gifts for those that they love. Craftsmen are those that take the time to finely hone their skills, work to prefect their techniques, and perhaps masterfully create a project that will become an heirloom. Artists are those that create their own designs and patterns, work from their own clay models, establish their own unique style of work that is recognizable and recognized by others at their level of accomplishment in the field.
The hobbyist are the ones that are using rough-outs, kits, and step-by-step patterns. They are the ones that rely on their instructors to make the harder decisions that come in any design work. And, when the piece is completed, whether from a kit or from a class, they are going to just as proud of their accomplishment as the most advanced artist of the craft, because they 'did it themselves'. As man is a social animal, wishing to know his or her placement within their own societal structure, they are going to want to put their projects into competition just like the craft masters and artists do.
So when the question is posed "should rough-outs, purchased patterns, and seminar projects be allowed in wood carving shows" what is really asked is "should hobbyist be allowed to compete in wood carving shows". That's the real discussion here and posing the question any other way is just disguising the underlying truth.
What have I learned about myself? Simply I am a hobbyist! I am the one that teaches those who have never before used a bench knife. I am the one that writes those long, explain everything, step-by-step instructions so that someone who has never tried it before might find some guidance. I am the one that spends hours and hours working out a pattern so that it is clear enough to understand and basic enough that they can trace and carve it. So you are asking should a carving from one of my books or on-line tutorial be allowed, should a project that started with one of my patterns qualify, and should one of my students be eligible.
Do I stifle creativity because I give them a Xeroxed copy of the pattern for their first attempt, point to an area in the work that might need to go deeper, or even suggest that they use a certain tool for a certain task? I sure hope not. What I hope is that I am doing is sharing some little spark of excitement that I feel when I carve. I hope that I am opening a small path that they to might express themselves through this craft.
Given our discussions, let me restate the original question a bit:
Should the work of carvers who use roughouts, etc be judged in the same categories as more "original" work? If the answer to that is no, it follows then that carving shows should have categories specifically for carvings done from roughouts, class projects, etc. (It also suggests that the origins of the starting piece be acknowledged.)
For those that desire to compete, this offers
several more level playing fields and perhaps provides more incentive
to work toward more original and creative carvings.
I have only been carving for about 6 years but have learned a great deal in that time. Entering competitions and exhibiting in shows for the past 5 years has proven very enlightening. I do it not to try to be the best, but look for honest judging of my work in which each judge will have a different opinion. I value all of them, then put some of them to work the next time I pick up a knife.
As for roughouts, I do believe they have their place in a competition, but not in the same general category as someone who has started from scratch. Some folks like me when I first started carving, do not have the equipment or tools to start from scratch so roughouts would be a great help to them.
I also believe that roughouts carved from group instruction should again be in a class of their own, as the actual carving is prompted by encouragement from an instructor. All class projects seem to look alike when done, although some may have more refined lines than others. These are great learning experiences. It still takes great skill and hard work to end up with a finished project you can be proud of although a lot of the guesswork for shape and symmetry is already formed. The next thing that comes up is that an additional judge would also be needed for these classes if included in a show.
As far as bandsawn blanks, I think that takes in a good portion of us as carvers. I believe many of the carvings at a show start this way. It shouldn't matter whether you do it as a hobby or as a business, everyone is an artist in their own way. Every carving is a masterpiece to the person who created it, and they all take a lot of hard work. I feel that for the hobbiest there are classes available from beginner to advanced and I believe that most carvers fit in these categories. There are others who do it for a living or make a business of it and I believe that they too should be a separate category.
"Ol' Don" Burgdorf:
I hope my comments regarding the need by judges to consider originality when evaluating carvings haven't overshadowed my thoughts about full acceptance in shows and competition for carvings created from shortcut methods, as long as they are identified as such. As Ivan pointed out, honesty by the carver presenting his carvings for competitive purposes should prevail. There is room for everyone who wishes to exhibit their efforts.
In my own mentoring I try to encourage design originality by having folk think outside the box for ways they could change my pattern so that it becomes their statement. Sometimes they accept the challenge, other times they'd rather just carve it the way I drew it. I have no problem accepting either decision though I must admit I get a good feeling when a carver sends me a note, sometimes with pictures, of a prize winning carving they did from one of my Chip Chats or other published patterns. It's nice to know I was able to help in some small way.
My take on the topic is this: Rough-outs and class pieces have real and indispensable roles as tools for teaching and learning the art of woodcarving. They have no real place in competitions. This is based purely on the premise that when someone enters a piece in competition they are looking for an objective opinion of how their work ranks among the others in competition with them at the same level. To some degree the piece is also ranked against other work that the judges have seen elsewhere. Regardless of how imperfect this ranking process is from show to show and from year to year, allowing roughouts brings the talents of the original's artist into the process in a very direct way. Allowing class pieces into competition brings the talents of the teacher into the ranking in a very direct way. Either makes the ranking unfair and meaningless.
Even a piece that is truly your original concept, and your original pattern, and your original sweat, will always have the marks of your teachers, but it should be a happy kludge of all your "teachers". These include classroom teachers, book teachers, video teachers, experience teachers, mistake teachers, and the teachings we receive through experiencing the work of others. Fortunately, I think most carvers understand this intuitively, and practice this "code" quietly on their own. Unfortunately the rules need to be in place to protect these true artists who wish to compete from those without a clue. If necessary, create a separate category for them, but it seems a waste of time and effort that most clubs and smaller competitions can't afford.
It looks as though there is a consensus that these types of carvings have their place in categories specific to them. I think that woodcarvers for the most part are among the most honest bunch of people I have ever had any dealings with, so I believe that those who would try to pass off these types of work as their own creations without acknowledging the original artist would be few and far between. Those who would do so have little chance of doing it for very long without someone calling them on it. For the honest, less ambitious, just in it to have a good time and get as good as they feel they want to, I say enjoy yourself, don't worry about what anyone else might think, you have every right to try and earn a ribbon, a pat on the back, and any joy this brings you. To those who are trying to push their creativity to new heights and put in the effort to master the techniques required to do so, I say, bravo, you are an inspiration to all of us, you deserve special recognition for taking this approach and going above and beyond
I must admit here (although I would rather this not get around the horn too loudly) I come from an old fashioned Irish family that lived under the creed of "Is this a private fight or can anyone join in the fray?" ... Having a 'normal discussion' was never part of the family curriculum ... still working on learning that one. For myself, I have found that if there is no challenge, no conflict, no disturbances in one's life there is no chance for growth. During the good times we go quietly about our lives without every questioning our own thoughts and ideas. So a little Irish saber rattling is always appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed around here.
From this discussion I can easily see that for me it's not how a show is judged, or how the categories in that show are defined and separated ... it's that I want each carver, no matter how new and inexperienced to have a chance to be encouraged, reinforced, and praised for their efforts as I believe this is one of the important components that makes a hobbyist want to try something more challenging and daring in the wood carving art ... when you get a little taste of success and recognition, you want more and are willing to do more to get it. So ... I think that it's my "Mother Hen" side came out much too strongly trying to protect my little flock of newbie carving chicks. Now, having ruffled my own feathers, I think I will go unruffle them (snicker).
We seem to be signing off on this topic with a fairly quickly and uniformly determined consensus. It was interesting to read how others came at the topic with many long and thoughtful contributions. As someone pointed out, there were several other topics raised that could be dealt with in a similar round table or panel discussion: the use of someone else's rough-outs or patterns in a class, fads and trends, encouraging creativity both generally and in competitions, among others.
As Bob Gander noted in his final comments, there are several other topics that will lend themselves to this panel discussion format. If there is a particular topic you would like to see explored in this series, please email me at WOMpaneltopics@carverscompanion.com.
-Matt Kelley, WOM Editor