Mary May: Classical to the Core

A trip to Europe, a phone call and an undying love of carving led her to the creation of an online school.

By Christopher Schwarz
Pages 28-31

Many traditional woodworkers daydream about serving a formal apprenticeship, working as a skilled and independent craftsperson and then passing on his or her hard-won knowledge to the next generation of woodworkers.

It’s a daydream that rarely evolves into anything more than that.

But for a young Mary May, that twinge led her to the phone book in her Minnesota town to look for someone – anyone – to teach her how to carve in the classical tradition. She had just returned from a backpacking tour of Europe where she had seen castles, cathedrals and some impressive carving.

She wanted to learn to carve like that, and she thought the Yellow Pages might be the place to look. As it turns out, she was correct.

She found two Greek carvers listed in the phone book, left phone messages for them both and got a call back first from Konstantinos Papadakis. Papadakis is a Byzantine-style carver who began in the craft at age 9 in Crete and then entered into a formal apprenticeship three years later.

Mary began working with Papadakis and eventually became his apprentice for three years. She went on to study and work under other teachers in Greece and England. And then she ventured to Pasir Gudang, Malaysia, to carve wood and stone for a Chinese hotel magnate.

After all that excitement and travel, she settled on Johns Island in South Carolina to carve for customers, whether they needed an acanthus leaf or an egret. She set up shop in a narrow structure that is mostly windows behind her house, which she shares with her husband, a biodiesel Mercedes-Benz and cats. Wandering outside are goats and chickens.

It was here that she honed her craft in a focused way that most woodworkers – even professionals – do not. Instead of venturing into other parts of the craft, such as building casework, turning or whittling, Mary stuck to her guns and remained a classical carver. She was happy to carve a fireplace mantle or the bonnet of a highboy. But she didn’t seek to build those forms from scratch.

In other words, she established herself as a traditional carver – a specialist and not a generalist. She served a formal apprenticeship and then did a stint as a journeyman, where she traveled to other shops to learn techniques. And she’d hunkered down for years of the day-in and day-out all-consuming work in an effort to master the carving craft.

It was there, in the confines of her shop, that she saw the turning point of her carving career.

“There was a point when I was not real confident with projects that (customers) would present to me, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it,” she says. “Five or six years ago I gained the confidence in shapes and forms. As long as I had enough information, I knew I could get that shape out of the wood.

“That definitely was a revelation,” she says. “Whatever comes through my door, I can do it.”

Video: Get Mary May’s DVD with step-by-step instruction on carving an acanthus leaf.
Blog: Follow Mary’s blog.
Web Site: Visit May’s web site for her carving business, Cornerstone Creations, and to find out more about her online school.
In our store: We offer a wide selection of Two Cherries carving tools at discount prices.

From the November 2012 issue #200
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