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Changing Times: A Carver's Story

By Susan Irish

Introduction by Catherine Kelley



In the late sixties and early seventies, when we "baby-boomers" embarked on our careers, many of us slid into the time-honored roles expected of females. It was not so much that we were forbidden to become chemists, doctors, mechanics, or CEOs, rather we were just not encouraged to take the risks involved in doing so. The tacit approval of being nurses, teachers, librarians, or personal assistants felt comfortable and we went with the "flow". A good percentage of us are (or were, as retirement arrives) very competent at these jobs, even loved what we do (or did), but deep within we wonder what that romantic career would have been like. Always did want to be an archeologist, but dad said there was no money in it! Instead I've been an elementary teacher for 30 years. Not much money in it either, Dad!

Susan Irish took the high road and went for the dream. She battled the popular thought that women should take the nurturing, subordinate roles and won the recognition we all strive for: the approval of her parents.


Susan's story:

When I was just finishing high school the careers that were open to women were very limited ... being a wife, being a nurse, ... that sort of role. Well, because of my high grades, I earned a full scholarship to the University of Maryland in the Fine Arts Department; I was thrilled. Neither of my brothers had earned scholarships so for me this accomplishment was something unique within my family. My brothers had already preceded me to the University, both studying in the Engineering Department.

My bags were literally packed and sitting in front of the kitchen door for me to head out for college when my fathers comes to me and said, "You don't have to go, I am sure I can pull some strings and get you into a local secretarial school. That's really what you want to do, isn't it?"

I picked up my bags and left for the University.

At that time it was assumed that any woman going to college was not attending to earn her B.A. or B.S. but to get her MRS. degree. I left my father's attitude and jumped into the University's attitude that "it was a waste of time to teach women as they just ran off and got married". therefore wasting the efforts of the professors. After college there was the battle with the galleries as to how to 'trick' them into showing a woman's works.

It was not until many years later, with my Dad bedridden from a terminal illness, that he and I finally made a connection, and that was through wood carving. Dad had carved all his life, usually gunstocks and pistol grips. He was so ill he could no longer carve. Spending several days a week in the house to give Mom breaks from caring for him, I eventually showed my Dad the little feather I had carved from a magazine article. He sent me off for his tool kit, some basswood, and preceded to 'instruct' me on the proper techniques of carving.

Over the next several months I held the knives and wood, but he was the one carving - make a cut there, use the v-gouge over here, strengthen this line, taper that area.

Several days after Dad's passing Mom brought out his carving tool kit; Dad had left her instructions that they were to go to me. These were the only personal items that Dad had directed be left to a specific person.

He and I had gone full circle from no acceptance of my career choice to "That's MY girl wood carving." Perhaps this is why I am so involved with wood carving today. It is the first place as a woman artist that I found total acceptance from my father and it is still the one place within the wider world that I have total acceptance as an artist.

Susan Irish is an accomplished carver and teacher. Susan and husband Mike own "Classic Carving Patterns."

Catherine Kelley is an elementary teacher, writer, and the patient and understanding wife of WOM Editor Matt Kelley.