Carving a labor of love

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Mary May has acquired a worldly education in her field of expertise and is now settled in the southeastern coastal town of Johns Island, S.C., where she runs Charleston Wood and Stone Carving from her home. With patience and diligence, she brings out the beauty in a vast array of wood species and stone types through carving commissions for private individuals and other artists such as furniture makers and builders.

Her hands look feminine, but they’re pretty strong. May jokes that her husband, Stephen, resists her back rubs because they hurt. She’s disciplined in the more traditional methods of hand carving and strives to keep the art alive with minimal use of electric tools. Her finely wrought designs look painstakingly crafted — too rich to be real in today’s world of mass-produced, run-of-the-mill items. But looking at the big picture, May hopes to rekindle an appreciation for wood- and stone carving here in the U.S. as it’s still widely admired in other parts of the world, particularly where she has trained.


Owner: Charleston Wood and Stone Carving
Carving experience: 16 years
Studio: 100 sq. ft.
About: Mary May is a professional wood and stone carver working with a variety of other artists, furniture makers and builders to create custom hand-carved pieces to meet the individual needs of each client. She has learned from and worked with masters from around the world.

During the last 16 years, May has worked on jobs ranging from small mantle decorations to the Corinthian columns at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. She is called upon for interior furnishings, antique reproductions, architectural details, fountains and sculptures. About 90 percent of her work is in wood; the rest is stone. Custom is the key word here — it’s her strongest line of defense. Competition with mass-produced carvings imported from places such as China, Indonesia and the Philippines has always been a problem, and the increasing popularity of carving machines is equally threatening.

“I rely on those people that want a one-of-a kind piece,” says May. “It’s more interesting for me and for them, and there are still people wanting that hand-carved touch. People appreciate the passion of the artist, and it’s a one-of-a-kind piece that you can’t find anywhere else.”

Educational pursuits
Originally from Wisconsin, May studied fine arts at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis where she was exposed to many arts and became particularly fond of carving. At age 25, she started taking weekly carving classes with Greek carver Konstantinos Papadakis at the Artistic Woodcarving Studio in Minneapolis. There, she honed her carving skills as an apprentice for the next three years and learned all about the classical styles such as carvings from the Greek Orthodox Church and the Byzantine style that embraces ornate detail with exceptional decorative leaf work.

May moved to Missouri near family after deciding to pursue a career in carving, but soon found that the market for intricate carvings in the Midwest was basically nonexistent. She yearned for more formal education to diversify her background and ultimately open more opportunities to sell her work, and went about exploring opportunities overseas.

In 1995 she went to Greece for four months and studied with master carver Theofilos Andravidiotis at his studio in Athens.

She then enrolled at the City and Guilds Art College in London, where she focused on classical European-style wood carving as well as stone carving, which is used for classical architectural pieces there.

She also worked as a custom picture frame carver at Steve Slack Picture Framing in London, and from there worked as a professional wood carver at the Carving Workshop in Cambridge, England.

In 1997, she accepted a position in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she helped decorate, in stone, a palatial estate owned by a hotel magnate. She was on a team of 10 stone carvers brought from England, and worked on decorative stone ceilings and other works in the classical European style, such as leaf carvings, columns, and architectural and ornamental pieces.