When a young Mary May returned to Minnesota from a backpacking tour of Europe she was intoxicated with the cathedrals, castles and carvings inside them.
“I remember talking to my friend about it and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to do those things?’ ”
And the friend replied, “Um, no, it wouldn’t.”
Mary was undaunted. But she was worried that the type of work that she had seen in Europe wasn’t even being done anymore.
“Perhaps,” she said, “I was born 200 years too late.”
She decided to search for a carving instructor and took an unlikely but ultimately successful path: She looked in the Yellow Pages under “woodcarvers.”
There were two carvers listed, both Greek. She called both and left messages. Konstantinos Papadakis was the first to return her call and she started studying with him. Konstantinos is an Old World carver who specializes in Byzantine forms and performs many commissions for Greek Orthodox churches.
She began studying with him one night a week and eventually became his apprentice for three years, working alongside him and carving any chance she got. It was difficult being his student because he was both oblique and demanding. But Mary didn’t care. Her passion was to create things, no matter what obstacles were ahead.
“I would be hammering away at 3 a.m., irritating my neighbors,” she said. “There were a few angry phone calls about that.”
After working for Konstantinos for three years she was offered the chance to study with the carvers that Konstantinos had studied under in Greece. She jumped at the chance, though it was a difficult environment. She didn’t speak Greek. They didn’t speak English. She was a young American woman in a world dominated by classically trained men.
“I ended up learning a lot of Greek swear words,” Mary said with a laugh. “We communicated with our hands and swearing.”
After three months in the Greek shops she tried to open up shop in Central Missouri where there is “not a lot of call for classical carving.” Then she landed in England in other carving shops and worked for a picture-frame carving shop, where she learned a lot about production carving.
Then it was off to Malaysia to do stone and wood carving for a Chinese hotel magnate who wanted a huge mansion in the European style. They hired 12 English carvers plus Mary and put them to work in the stone yard.
“When I had a job like this, I ended up learning so much more with the pressure of the customer and the boss,” she said. “When you are a student the atmosphere is more relaxed.”
So she cranked out a lot of stone and wood carvings for this mansion, which she never actually saw.
“I think I met the customer only once,” she said. “And I never saw the house. I was in the stoneyard the whole time. We did our work and it was packed up to the site.”
When she returned to the United States, Mary settled in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a hotbed of traditional houses and furniture. She hoped to get jobs working on the carving on the furniture and houses in Charleston.
But the reality is that most of the ornamental work on these houses is either plaster or ironwork. Carving jobs were rare on the Charleston peninsula. So most of her work ended up in contemporary structures and on reproduction 18th-century style furniture.
Mary ended up carving lots of fireplace mantles on Kiawah Island, plus newel posts and corbels for the modern homes of well-to-do homeowners. She also became adept at carving the icons of the Lowcountry area – palmetto trees and egrets in particular.
But her love and passion for traditional carving never wavered. She continued to participate in carving groups and to exhibit at carving shows. But Mary was a bit of an odd bird. Many of these shows are more geared toward people who whittle or do sculpture — not people who do carving that ornaments fine furniture.
But then the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) came calling. And during the last few years, Mary has been traveling all over the country to demonstrate period furniture carving techniques to SAPFM members. Plus she has been teaching at many woodworking schools, including the Marc Adams School of Woodworking and Roy Underhill’s The Woodwright’s School.
And she opened a woodworking school on her property, which she shares with her husband, Stephen, plus 40 chickens and goats. She has a small but cozy shop behind her house that is equipped with all the things a carver needs: good benches, good light and good tools.
She also films DVDs in her shop and makes plaster castings of a number of her carvings that she sells with her DVDs. The plaster castings allow would-be carvers to study her work as they attempt to replicate it.
Like all small schools and shops, it’s a bit of a struggle to keep things afloat and do commissions. But Mary remains committed to the craft, no matter how difficult the path.
I visited her shop on a Monday evening and was struck by how fluid her carving was, no matter what the style she was working in. A stunning Greek Orthodox icon stand was two steps away from equally impressive ball-and-claw feet.
Mary explains that her approach to work is not about being an iconoclast to one historical tradition. Instead, well, it’s best to let her say it.
“What I know is shapes,” she said. “I know how to acquire those shapes in the most efficient way possible. My specialty is in understanding the three dimensions and being able to work in three dimensions using only a photo at times.”
She’s being modest here. When she was called upon to carve a breakfast table by the legendary cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe, Mary had only photos to work from. But her carving hit all the right notes.
“It’s really all about going though the thought process,” she said. “You need to figure out how to do every corner of a carving without painting yourself into a corner. You can end up doing a corner and then realize that you need to lower that carving by 1/4”.”
Mary then looks up at the ceiling for a moment.
“I’ve done that,” she said. “A lot. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have learned from them. I’ve learned how to think through the process.”
At that she turns around to direct her full attention to the spinach and onions she’s tossing on the burner of her stove.
The funny thing about her statement is that it was not a statement of regret or pride. But it was made by someone who started her journey with the Yellow Pages and ended up as a carver who is both the wide-eyed young woman who loves to carve at 3 a.m. and the seasoned professional who is not afraid to tell you the truth about anything.
— Christopher Schwarz
• See more of Mary May’s work and the classes she offers at MaryMayCarving.com.