Monona wood carvers show their personalities through creations

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The Monona Wood Carvers Group meets Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the Marting Wood Carving Room at the Monona Historical Museum. Among the members are Elmer Marting (left), David Scott, Mary Althouse, Stan Blair, Gayle Patraw, Jim Faulkner, Butch Whittle, Bob Griffith, Ron Kaiser and Bob Moses. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

David Scott enjoys trying a variety of carving styles. “I do two or three of one thing and then I’m looking for something more challenging,” he said. Here, he works on a caricature carving.

Butch Whittle shows off the comb he’s working on. The teeth have already emerged from the piece of wood, and now he’s chipping a design into the base.

Jim Faulkner takes a break from walking stick carving to turn the center of a golf ball into a skull.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“Life is simple,” reads David Scott’s T-shirt: “Eat. Sleep. Carve.”

However, for members of the Monona Wood Carvers Group who gather weekly in the Marting Wood Carving Room at the Monona Historical Museum, the artful creations they form out of mere pieces of wood using just their own hands and a few tools are anything but.

In one piece, a brown grizzly bear with a fish in its mouth rises from the blue-painted wood surface, bringing the scene to life. Down the line stands an aviator caricature—complete with goggles, bomber jacket and scarf—its exaggerated features and expressive smirk captivating the viewer. On other pieces, intricate patterns of butterflies, stars and flowers are etched into the wood using series after series of chips and lines.

“There are many different types of carving,” shared Elmer Marting, who, with fellow carving enthusiasts Bob Drahn and Marvin Miller, formed the group in 2007. “Each person has their own specific interest that brings out their own individual personalities.”

Marting, carving since the 1950s, has tried them all: chip, relief, caricature, bark, incise, acanthus. His favorite, though, remains chip carving—the type new carvers to the group often cut their teeth on.

“We start everyone out on some form of chip carving, on little coasters or squares,” he explained. This helps them learn how to hold the knife, as well as how it should be angled, at exactly 65 degrees. “If you don’t angle it correctly, you won’t have the proper depth and the light won’t reflect back correctly” when viewing the designs.

Marting likes that it’s precise, detailed work.

“You cannot make a mistake,” he warned, “because it will show.”

Mary Althouse is one of the newest members to the group of around a dozen carvers who travel from throughout northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin to hone their skills and socialize with one another.

“I wanted to learn chip carving,” she said, “and, so far, I’m enjoying it.”

Since she rarely carves at home, Althouse focuses her time with the group on smaller projects, like trivets, which can be completed more quickly. Now, she’s carving letters into wooden squares.

“They’ll be Christmas gifts, I think,” she said.

Across the table, Butch Whittle is making a comb. The teeth have already emerged from the piece of wood, and now he’s chipping a design into the base.

Like Marting, Whittle prefers chip carving, often creating plates. But he’s also made birdhouses and vases, in addition to small carvings out of walnut shells. An eight-year veteran, he’s one of the most long-standing members of the group and looks forward to attending each week.

“It gives you something to do,” he said, “and I like seeing what other people are doing.”

Bob Griffith is chip carving now too—a Celtic cross for a family member. Drawn into carving after creating replacement appliques for furniture, he said his projects have varied over the years.

“Generally,” he shared, “I’m not interested in doing realistic things—more fantasy. There’s a little dragon [on display] that I did.”

For any carver, he said the most important thing is patience.

“Everything takes a life of its own,” he explained.

That’s especially true for some carvers. Ron Kaiser gravitates toward realistic pieces, first making birds and now other animals and even human caricatures. Sometimes he works from a pattern, but other times, the idea develops in his head.

“It’s a creative outlet,” he said, “and I enjoy trying to get the feeling of the animal into the wood.”

Bob Moses also likes caricature carving, showing various human figures. He even makes toys, like little cars, bears and rabbits.

“It depends on the season. Come Christmas, I’ll probably do some Santa Clauses,” he said. “To me, those things are easier to do. A lot of times, I see things in a magazine and I try to duplicate them.”

Jim Faulkner specializes in walking sticks, carving intricate human skulls and other details into the handles. He enjoys the art form because “you can never do it wrong.” It can be fun to experiment.

“You make a line and that line leads into another line,” he explained. “Then you make a couple of gouges.”

“I always get ideas from someone else,” Faulkner added. “I wonder, ‘What would this look like?’ So I try it.”

Stan Blair likes experimenting with carving as well. 

“I try a little bit of everything,” he said, and enjoys taking classes to try new things. 

Over the years, some of his favorite types have included relief carving (carving an image out of a flat board), caricature carving and bark carving (forming faces or houses out of pieces of bark).

David Scott, whom Marting characterized as one of the most prominent, professional carvers, has been woodworking since the early 1960s, when he was in the military. He continued the hobby off and on over the years, but didn’t started joining the Monona Wood Carvers Group until a few years ago, after losing some eyesight and coordination in an accident.

“I met Elmer and he convinced me to come over here to work on my hand-eye coordination,” Scott stated. 

The activity has helped, and he’s dove into all the different techniques. Relief and line carvings are some of Scott’s favorites, but he admits to not sticking with one thing for long.

“I do two or three of one thing and then I’m looking for something more challenging,” he said. “I have a bunch of tools, and I like figuring out what’s going to work. They all have a different shape and purpose.”

Within the group, carvers don’t just share ideas with one another. They also share tools—knives, chisels, gouges, veiners—and offer tips on how to use them and sharpen them. 

“There are so many different types of carving,” said Marting, “and each will take a different type of tool.”

New carvers learn how to carve safely and how to read the wood grain. They figure out which woods are best suited for carving (basswood and butternut). Materials are often donated for anyone to use.

“My mission is that we do not charge anyone,” Marting said. He welcomes others who are interested in carving to stop by, learn more and enjoy the camaraderie of the fellow carvers. The Marting Wood Carving Room, where the group members meet, is a unique draw in itself, as it contains the world’s largest known collection of handmade chains.

The Monona Wood Carvers Group meets at the Monona Historical Museum on South Egbert Street (across from the city park) on Tuesday afternoons, from 1 to 4 p.m. for carving, as well Thursday afternoons to paint and decorate their carvings. After each session, carvers enjoy refreshments and an “intellectual hour.” 

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