David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making (New York: Penguin, 2013)

Thinking about wood carving, you think about the world. Well, I do anyway.   (28)

Esterly’s title includes the interweaving of his own journey with that of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), the great Dutch-British wood carver. At the surface it can seem Esterly is emulating Gibbons (or rather, as he says, his approach), but soon they appear to be walking alongside one another, with only a few centuries between them. Both arrived in England as outsiders.

Our destination drew near, the island where lightening had flashed for me, years before, and where it had flashed for Gibbons, too: both of us new arrivals in a newfound land, where anything could happen and the future was malleable. (32)

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Carving is a journey where maps are made only to be destroyed.

What you don’t see influences what you see.

The book is bigger even than what Esterly calls the cultural bedrock activity of carving.

Gibbons wasn’t the giant whose shoulder I was riding on. The giant was the act of carving, the profession itself: the making of a carving, the making of anything. Making itself. The Ancient of Days in all of us, the impulse to create.   (262)

Esterly teaches us about carving wood, the techniques, the history, the difficulty and the physicality of it.   But his wonderfully crafted writing is also a treatise on the philosophy and process of making, and anyone with that Ancient of Days impulse to create will feel spurred on, and perhaps reassured.   If you have ever had someone comment in a slightly patronizing tone that you are a ‘perfectionist’ because you take 30% more time to get that last one or five percent right, then The Lost Carving will inspire you to persist in leaving ‘good enough’ in the dust and in busting limitations, your own and others’.

To transgress limits is to define them. Blake says that you will never know what’s enough until you know what’s more than enough, and so if the fool persists in his folly he will become wise.   (66)

He also quashes the notion that creating gets easier as your skills develop, since your ambition and invention will often outrun your skills, and skills aren’t just there to realize ambition and invention, but to fuel them.   And if you don’t fuel them yourself, someone like Gibbons will sooner or later light a rocket to burn up complacency.

Effortless work is an ever receding mirage. Improving skills will only unleash new ambitions, and new ambitions will engender new difficulties. The somnolent British oak carvers of 1670 may have thought that the technical problems of their profession had been solved long before. Then came Gibbons to shake them awake with extravagant forms that demanded unimagined skills.   (118)

But in with the difficulty and the impulsion to push beyond your skills, he also captures those moments of ski-smooth flow.

Every morning I awoke happy to be where I was. (46)

A sense of well-being washed over me, as I possessed my fate again. (154)

Sustained congruence of maker and made … The clear light of afternoon shines down on these days. (206)

An angle on attentive making which I haven’t seen highlighted elsewhere, is the sense-honing spillover into other areas of appreciation.

I grew closer to the writers and painters in our acquaintance. Our conversations had a new zest to them. And I grew closer to writers and painters long dead. I seemed to be perceiving all the arts in a more inward way. I started hearing music with more than my ears. Even movies seemed more interesting … Carving had pressed some celestial Enhance button … It’s one of the best reasons for taking up the arts as an amateur: to hone your senses. Make their bevels finer, so that you can get a better angle on the beauty of the world. (103-104)

May you press the celestial Enhance button and may your sensory bevels be finer!

Steely veterans that shine in use, preserved from rust by the oil in the sweat of my hands. Like the aged mariners of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” they’ve toiled and wrought with me in a hundred campaigns where victory was never assured. Almost all are older than I am. They’ve wrought for masters before me, many for masters before those. For bearded men who wore frock coats on Sundays. I’m part of the procession that’s already spanned a century. Years of my own sharpening will shorten a few beyond use. The rest will toil for others after I’m gone.  (18)

Esterly’s moving description of his carving tools, with their history and patina.   

 

Patron-enraging rascal

You can’t help but like the rascal, and their apparently quite tolerant patron.

The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013), p. 139

Horny-handed integrity

Like a character from a George Eliot novel, such as Adam Bede.

The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013), p. 210

Head-bobbing sycophant

You can see the all-too-eager-to-please nods of this creep!

The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013), p. 249

Bending

‘… bending over a curled shadowy thing, like a sibyl reading a prophecy.’

Those moments of concentration, absorption and self-forgetfulness, transported into the act of making.

Source: The Lost Carving: A journey to the heart of making, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 93

Chisels

‘A hundred chisels like a hundred different thoughts, a hundred ideas to propose to the wood.’

Chisels as thoughts and ideas to propose to the wood.  How many other tools or implements can carry this metaphor?   Pens?  Paint brushes?   ‘A hundred brushes like a hundred different thoughts, a hundred ideas to propose to the canvas’?

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 3

Emptiness

‘A world as empty as a Confucian scholar’s landscape.’   Although not all Confucian scholar landscapes are empty, this does echo the stillness and timelessness of many classical Chinese paintings.

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 166

Geese

‘Traffic jams of Canada geese honking their horns.’   I love this natural connection between the traffic jam horn-honking and the energetic honking of geese.   Now that Esterly has thought of it, it’s obvious!

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 137

Mind

‘The mind slips its mooring and lets the river take it where it will.’

Lovely moments when you can afford to let your mind wander and see where it leads.  The meandering mind isn’t always as aimless and devoid of destination as it seems.   And it can yield rich serendipitous discoveries and connections.

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 4

Stalled

‘I felt as stalled as the changeless skies.’

Next time I feel stalled or blocked, I will view it as a moment of suspension in a changeless sky, reassuring myself that even the most changeless skies change sooner or later.

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 88

Vapour

‘The remnants of summer steam out of the river, in tall plumes of vapor that mark its course like a battle line at the bottom of a field.’

The remnants of summer curling like smoke from a battle field!   Esterly is one of those makers who handle words as deftly as they handle the other materials they work in, in his case, wood.

Souce: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 39

Winter

‘The sun, tardier every morning, fought retreating skirmishes with the frost.   Cold had light by the throat.’

A metaphor to grab you, as the light and warmth of summer beats a retreat and winter advances, affront of cold and dark.

Source: The Lost Carving, David Esterly (New York: Penguin, 2013 (20129), p. 76

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