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January 20, 2013

Meet David Esterly, the best woodcarver in the world

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Below, excerpts from Ellen Gamerman's January 10 Wall Street Journal story about this modern master of wood, exemplars of whose work are pictured above and below.

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The first time David Esterly ever touched a carving by his idol, the late 17th-century master woodworker Grinling Gibbons, it broke off in his hand. He was musing about the watershed nature of the moment for him, holding the thin flower stem between his fingers, when he heard the snap.

It was nothing that couldn't be fixed, but it was also fitting that this first encounter was so fraught. Mr. Esterly, one of the only wood carvers in the world creating original high-relief works today, had been both inspired and haunted by Gibbons for years. Gibbons, widely considered the greatest wood carver of all time, was a monkey on Mr. Esterly's back — a gibbon, he jokes — and he didn't know if he should steal from him, ignore him, or rebel against him.

Each carving starts with a pencil sketch. Then Mr. Esterly creates a more intricate drawing on Adobe Illustrator before cutting the carving's outline with a roughly 3-inch board with a band saw.

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The problem of working in the shadow of a genius is at the center of Mr. Esterly's new book, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making." It chronicles the year Mr. Esterly spent replacing a 7-foot Gibbons carving that had been destroyed in a 1986 fire at Hampton Court Palace, near London.

It's a big moment for the obscure world of wood carving. Mr. Esterly, 68 years old, opened his first Manhattan gallery show this week. His carvings, with subjects ranging from blooming rosebuds to iPod earbuds, cover the walls at W. M. Brady & Co., all created from the same creamy limewood favored by Gibbons. The wood can look as pale as white skin: no wonder Mr. Esterly once mistook a botanical sculpture discarded on his bed for a naked woman tangled in the sheets.

Mr. Esterly considers himself a contemporary artist, creating works from scratch. His subjects can be sobering. His latest work depicts a letter rack holding an envelope that reads, "To be opened in the event of my" with the word "death" hidden by a strap. The envelope is torn open.

An American with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge — he studied the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the ancient philosopher Plotinus — Mr. Esterly wasn't sure what he wanted to do for a living when he picked up his first chisel nearly four decades ago. He had no sense of himself as an artist; he said he was handling the tools as an academic exercise to help in his research for a book about Gibbons.

Carving, Mr. Esterly writes, may be "a profession for high-functioning obsessive-compulsives." He soon became fixated, taking six weeks to carve a small flowered mirror frame that he sold at a crafts fair. The self-taught carver wanted to work in the Gibbons tradition while adding his own twist. Instead of perfect blossoms in Gibbons's style, his leaves might be eaten by bugs, or a rose might dangle off a broken stem (he rejoiced when a fellow carver thought one such flower had been damaged in transit).

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His larger commissioned carvings now sell into the six figures. Asked if he was getting rich from the work, his sole employment, he said, "No. Believe me." He works on what he calls a "murderously slow" timetable, and he refused to even broadly estimate how long it takes him to finish a carving.

"I have no sense of getting better and better, it's just that my earlier work gets worse and worse," he said.

In his workshop in upstate New York, along a tributary of the Mohawk River, he starts each piece with imported English limewood, which has nothing to do with lime — it's linden wood. He sketches his design in pencil and then creates a more intricate drawing on Adobe ADBE +0.66% Illustrator before cutting the carving's outline with a band saw. He turns to his chisels for the rest, working from the front of the piece to the back, sometimes nicking himself and bleeding on the wood.

Mr. Esterly had always had a physical reaction to works by Gibbons. In the 1970s, shortly before he started carving, he saw his first piece by Gibbons, a riot of flowers, fruit, and foliage draped behind the altar at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, in central London. His palms tingled and he had the sensation of feeling the wood's curves on his tongue.

About 15 years later, he found himself at Hampton Court, spreading out his 130 chisels to re-create the burned Gibbons work, a floral cascade known as a "drop" that had hung in the King's Drawing Room. A few British officials insisted an English carver do the work, not an American. Mr. Esterly, pointing out that Gibbons himself was born in the Netherlands and spoke with a Dutch accent, enlisted the help of a member of Parliament and got the job. He used forensic evidence to recreate the piece, examining a 1930s glass-plate photograph of the lost carving and studying other Gibbons works that survived the fire.

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Below, excerpts from Ralph Gardner's January 16 Wall Street Journal appreciation of this singular artist.

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I've been trying to describe, if only to my own satisfaction, my reaction when I walked into Mark Brady's Upper East Side gallery last week and got my first glance of David Esterly's art. Was it amusement? Giddy excitement? Awe?

The subject matter is the stuff of still-life paintings from the Old Masters to 19th-century American art by painters such as William Harnett: flowers in profusion, sea shells, antique letter racks filled with everyday objects such as letters, feathers, string. There's only one difference: Mr. Esterly's medium isn't paint. It's wood. British limewood to be precise, in this country called linden.

"I get it at great trouble and expense from Britain," Mr. Esterly explained as he showed me around. "The grain is very mild and crisp. The wood is soft but very strong. You can carve across the grain. You get wonderful cuneiform shapes. You can make it paper thin — like a petal."

The artist, who lives deep in the woods upstate, on the bend of a river outside Utica, explained that he's a fan of 18th-century Dutch still-life painters, artists such as Jan van Huysum. When you see that sort of art in museums, the realism and virtuosity is so great that it's almost self-defeating; you're enchanted by the technique but, like a magic trick, your efforts to deconstruct the effect sometimes gets in the way of fully enjoying the art.

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The same thing goes for Mr. Esterly's work. You can't imagine how he manages the delicacy of the effects that he creates. And how much time it was must take to turn dead wood — no matter how supple and cooperative — into objects that more than mimic nature, that have the sheen of life.

Like all great art (and I don't think I'm exaggerating by calling it great; the giddiness I felt was similar to being unleashed at the threshold of a room filled with Vermeers), there's something intuitive about it, as if you and the artist are simultaneously stumbling upon some underlying truth.

And the triumph is all the greater when you consider that he's pulling it off in a monochromatic medium. "It's the pleasure of illusion," he explained, pointing out one of his favorite effects. It was a single tulip leaf in a large piece that incorporated gardening tools and a profusion of flowers in buckets.

"This is for a lady who has an Olmsted garden on the North Shore of Boston," Mr. Esterly said. "She said in some years there's a moment when her peonies, iris and tulips all bloom at the same time. I chose that moment. And then I copied her gardening tools."

But the tulip leaf whose craftsmanship he admired isn't a faithful copy of an actual tulip leaf. "It's not as flat as a real tulip leaf would be," he confided. "I discovered if you carved a leaf with holographic accuracy it looks like a wooden leaf. You haven't taken account of the medium. In order to make it come to life you have to introduce selective exaggeration."

Mr. Esterly didn't plan to be a woodcarver when he grew up. Indeed, his career path gives hope to all of us whose third-grade art teacher helped us to the realization that we had no talent.

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"She said draw a painting of whatever comes to mind," the artist recalled, of an actual traumatic third-grade episode. "What came to mind was a waterfall in a jungle. She looked carefully at it and said, 'I see what you've done. It's called abstract art. You haven't drawn a picture of anything, have you?' I was so wounded the door to the palace of art slammed shut. I never imagined I had any artistic talent. I'm still not sure I do. I don't believe in intrinsic gifts for anything."

Mr. Esterly assumed he'd become an academic. He graduated from Harvard and then attended Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. But his life changed the afternoon that he and his girlfriend and now wife, Marietta von Bernuth, dropped into St. James's Piccadilly Church, and he spotted a cascade of leaves and flowers, fruits and vegetables behind the alter, made entirely of wood. It was the work of Grinling Gibbons, a master 17th-century woodcarver.

"It was carved with a fineness and fluency and realism I'd never seen before," Mr. Esterly remembered. "It seemed to speak to more than my mind. I had a full body and mind reaction. It's a hyper-organic art. You're using a botanical medium to portray botanical subjects."

While the encounter with Gibbons might have been unplanned, his education had primed him to embrace the artist. "I'd studied Yeats and Pound," he said. "They saw no distinction between craftsmanship and art. Yeats in particular had this vision of unity of being where your imaginative and mental and bodily lives were all one."

His first instinct was to write about Gibbons. Mr. Esterly was an academic, after all. (He eventually did. His book, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" about a year he spent at Hampton Court Palace in the late '80s recreating a Gibbons work that was destroyed by fire, was published in 2012.) "But you couldn't understand how his style developed unless you understood something about his materials and tools and his methods," the artist explained. So he tried his hand at carving. "With the first stroke the genie was out of the bottle."

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To call the process, with his 130 carving tools, time-consuming would be crass understatement. "I don't own any of my own work," he said. A single work might take a year or more to complete. "These things are so slow."

January 20, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


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Comments

"I have no sense of getting better and better, it's just that my earlier work gets worse and worse,"

Brilliant, just brilliant!

Posted by: joepeach | Jan 20, 2013 6:18:31 PM

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