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Carving a labor of love

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.

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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.

MARY MAY 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.

“I was the typical starving artist, but I wanted to put up with what I had to,” May says. “It was a real passion just to carve and to learn everything I possibly could from the masters. I basically fell in love with the carving.”

May moved back to the U.S. in 1999 in hopes of establishing a small custom carving business, and decided on the Charleston area for a couple reasons: historic preservations are ongoing, and there’s a high-end residential market that includes Hilton Head and Kiawah Island.

“I got a little workshop going, started a clientele, and basically just knocked on people’s doors with my portfolio and said, ‘This is what I do,’ to woodworkers and furniture makers. I made a lot of phone calls,” says May.

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Locals come calling
In only six months, May succeeded in finding enough work to keep busy. Now, about 90 percent of her business comes from about a dozen other woodworking, millwork and cabinetry shops, mainly in Charleston and Savannah, Ga., who in turn introduce unique carving ideas to their clients, which boosts their business as well. Sometimes she works very closely with other furniture makers to come up with a design, as she did before carving the shell forms and finials on a reproduction of a Goddard Townsend Newport secretary for Guenther Wood Group in Savannah.

“I don’t rely on advertising except for the Yellow Pages and my Web site. I don’t do shows or anything like that. I tried doing shows before, but nothing ever came of it.

“I try not to make my prices outlandish; I want to make it available for everybody. I usually price my work by the time put in, but usually end up underestimating. I think that’s the problem with any woodworking company. We usually end up underestimating rather than overestimating.”

Most clients have very specific ideas about what they want. One client wanted a wooden fireplace mantle decorated with a Bible verse. Generally, May’s customers are within a 50-mile radius of her shop.

May has noticed a slight decline in orders over the last several months in conjunction with a downturn in the economy. “It’s affecting people not wanting to step out and spend that extra money on the decorations I add,” she says.

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Tools and materials
May has about 150 hand tools in her charming 100-sq.-ft. studio. Going for at least $25 a pop, she’s got more than $4,000 invested in chisels, gouges and other necessities.

May concedes that the investment is quite expensive and recommends anyone serious about carving start with at least 20 hand tools and a solid workbench that allows for the heavy use of a mallet and clamping device. Sharp tools are essential.

“That’s probably most important. If you can’t get your tools sharp, you can’t carve.”

May has a scroll saw, but stays clear of electric carving tools — she can carve faster with hand tools — and finishing. Mahogany is her favorite wood because it’s easy to carve and produces a nice finish. She’s also partial to walnut and Spanish cedar, and even red oak, white oak and rosewood, though the latter three are much harder. She says basswood is suitable for non-structural pieces, but not for furniture and moldings because it’s white and doesn’t lend to quite as nice a finish. For stone, she uses mainly granite, marble, sandstone, slate, alabaster and clay.

Comparing wood with stone is like night and day, and she actually prefers stone because it doesn’t present grain issues. She enjoys gently chipping away at the stone and seeing shapes slowly emerge without having to force the material. If she didn’t have to rely on clients for income, more of her own designs would be stone, but usually the stone pieces are more sculptural.

Nearly all of her stone sculptures are created by what is called “direct stone carving” where she starts carving into a piece of stone without having created a clay model or even a drawing.

“I have an idea, and start chipping. It is very exciting to see what emerges — it surprises me most times.”

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One of her more significant works in stone was an 8’ tall dolphin done in Indiana Limestone that took her a year-and-a-half to design and finish. It was part of an outdoor fountain made to match a dolphin-themed home. And those are the custom jobs that keep her in business. It’s not practical for May to focus on small, mundane stone decorative ornaments for the lawn because she’s unable to compete with less expensive stone cast versions, often made overseas.

“You can find a marble carved angel for $300,” she says. “I can’t even get the stone for that.”

Necessary skills
When working with either wood or stone, May uses carbon paper when transferring a design onto her material. But the original outline quickly gets chipped away.

“If it’s very deep carving, you do have to redraw on the design as you go. Really, drawing is a necessary skill for carving. A lot of times you end up using your carving tools almost as if they were a pencil.”

Sometimes she’ll rely on other tools, such as calipers, as she did to transfer the dimensions of the dolphin from its 15” tall model. But the skill comes with managing the depths of the design on her material.

“It’s all about seeing three-dimensionally. That is probably the most important, training the eye to see 3-D. From a very young age, I’ve always liked shaping things in 3-D, like clay. When I used to draw, I’d do a lot of shading so you could see that drawing in 3-D.”

Since she boldly puts her time and energy into high-end custom products, it’s interesting to learn she manages not to fret about making a wrong move on a design. She says her religious faith gives her confidence to work her way through a piece. But delivery day is another story.

“Carving the dolphin took me nine months. The only part that really gave me nightmares was moving it. I didn’t sleep for a week after that because I was so wound up. We had the right machinery — just thinking about it makes me nervous — but there were four pieces, stacked one atop the other, and each piece had to be moved separately.”

May’s latest venture is teaching at a Woodcraft Supply store in Charleston. She likes the idea of passing on the skills of a dying art and hopes to take on an apprentice in the near future.

Contact: Charleston Wood and Stone Carving, 1082 River Road, Johns Island, SC 29455. Tel: 843-200-9469.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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