Carving culture: Ten life lessons from Red River Valley Woodcarvers
Lonna Whiting sat in on a recent Red River Valley Woodcarvers meeting at the American Legion in Moorhead. Here are the ten things she learned.
An unfortunate whittling incident in seventh grade woodshop left me with a scar on my hand and a subsequent lifelong reminder that playing with knives is an at-your-own-risk endeavor.
Recently, however, I was invited to meet members of Red River Valley Woodcarvers at the American Legion in Moorhead where they meet every Thursday. In the two hours I spent with the group, I learned more about the wood arts than I did during an entire semester of woodshop, and now I’m more fascinated than ever. Here’s what I learned.
Lesson #1: Woodcarving gives you purpose
Chris Pinotti has been living with multiple sclerosis for several decades and considers the pastime to be part of the reason he still has much of his health.
“I was diagnosed with MS in 1989 and retired in 2002. Having something to do and people to be around when you have something like that happen to you is crucial,” Pinotto said. “You gotta have a purpose.”
What struck me the most about Pinotti’s relationship with carving is that he doesn’t stray from a challenge and he’s learned to adapt his technique to accommodate his physical abilities.
“Most people carve a certain way, but with my hands, I have to do things a little backwards,” he said. “But it works for me.”
Most, if not all, club members have asked Pinotti for advice, help or encouragement at one time or another. He’s considered a resident wood sage, a mentor and inspiration to all.
Lesson #2: Woodcarving is storytelling
Alan Pearson has spent many years studying and carving in the northern European traditions. His knowledge of the folklore behind his pieces are as rich and detailed as his carvings.
Pearson showed me his impressive collection of gnomes and trolls. “We have to deal with trolls, for instance. They’re selfish. They’re greedy. They live up in the mountains away from everybody, but every once in a while, a lady troll will come looking for a husband,” Pearson said. “If a young Norwegian boy is interested, they would get married, and just as soon as the church bell would ring, the troll’s tail would fall off. But you have to realize, that boy is now married to that old troll for the rest of his life.”
Lesson #3: Woodcarving makes you a better neuroscience student
Concordia neuroscience, psychology and philosophy major Zimy Le stumbled upon carving culture during a soap carving event at Bonanzaville. The practice has since helped her improve her fine motor skills, a must-have in the field of neuroscience.
“I have ambition,” she said. “With my research in neuroscience, we have to dissect under microscopes and I think carving has really helped me with my coordination. I’m actually the best in the shortest time, and people joke and call it the Zimy Method.”
Lesson #4: Woodcarving can be a practical skill
I don’t know why it surprised me that woodcarvers could make hunting and fishing decoys, but it did. Carver Duane Bischoff was kind (and patient) enough to explain that woodcarving isn’t just about creating art; it’s also about creating functional items. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the functional items aren’t artful.
“It’s kind of a big deal if you go out and fish with something you’ve made yourself,” he said.
Bischoff, who has been making lures since the 1970s, recently turned his attention to bark carvings and other larger projects, though he still carves his fishing lures.
“It’s neat fishing with something you’ve made, but I wanted to progress and make bigger projects,” Bischoff said. He now works with cottonwood bark and other wood to create Indigenous-inspired carvings, walking sticks and gnomes, in addition to teaching how to make knives.
Lesson #5: Carving is a great father-daughter pastime
Jim Schrock and his adult daughter, Gretchen Schrock, have been attending the club for a while now and enjoy going together. Jim introduced Gretchen to carving at age seven when they carved shapes out of bars of soap using popsicle sticks for knives. Now 24, she said wants to continue honing her craft.
“Everybody sees something differently and you can do so many different designs,” she said. “It’s fun to do it with my dad.”
Lesson #6: Dental instruments are great for first-timers
Beverlee Ashmore learned how to carve using a dentist tool in 2009.
“My dentist had eggs displayed, so I started carving eggs with a dental tool,” she said. “So I have just been doing it all the time. I love the cottonwood bark and I don’t go by any patterns unless there’s a teacher I’m following.”
Ashmore showed me around her award-winning village-themed carvings and held up her sunflower relief carving for the camera. “I really like doing all of it,” she said.
Lesson #7: There’s math involved (sometimes)
Bob Jones, clearly a details guy, has spent a couple decades toying with the intricacies unique to free-form carving geometric designs. His work is beautiful. But also, there’s math.
“Even when I’m carving, I go by my measurements, so you’re constantly checking your design with the measurements because once you put it in the wood, that’s it,” Jones said.
Jones started carving in 2001 and really got into carving during the pandemic “when we were stuck at home so long,” he said.
Lesson #8: There’s always something new to explore
Cathy Meyer started her carving career with two blocks of wood, three knives and a glove.
“I bought all this stuff and knew that was what I wanted to do when I retired. I took a class and got hooked,” Meyer said. “I’ve taken just about every class Red River Valley Woodcarvers offers.”
Since retiring, Meyer has gone all in and learned many different techniques over the past two years. Like most carvers who eventually find a niche they are good at and enjoy, she said she’s found her stride in carving whimsical miniatures and fairy garden pieces.
Lesson #9: Carving keeps you young
Dick Skauge has been carving for 35 years. I mentioned that he must have started carving quite young, so I was shocked when he told me he’s turning 70 soon.
“That’s what carving does to ya,” he said. “Keeps ya young.”
Like a lot of carvers, he hasn’t “figured out what I’m going to do when I grow up yet,” but he enjoys carving faces and figures. “But I do just about anything.”
Lesson #10: You’re more creative than you think
Charles Sullivan’s only been carving seriously for a year and already has made a name for himself, even though he sometimes “has no idea what I’m going to make,” he said.
But he can turn a piece of wood next to some of the best in the room. He fashions castle windows out of old Shrinky Dinks toys his wife had stored away at home, for example. “Everything has to connect, you see. Sometimes I look at a piece of wood and have no idea what I’m going to make,” he said. “But I think carving is about knowledge, having a couple of tools, some curiosity and creativity.”
About Red River Valley Woodcarvers
Red River Valley Woodcarvers is a member-based club that encourages wood arts among all people. The club holds regular carving sessions and hosts many classes for carvers of all skill and experience levels.
Learn more about Red River Valley Woodcarvers and view a list of upcoming classes on their website at rrvwoodcarvers.org.
Join the club
Club members are eager to share their knowledge and talents with anyone interested in learning more about carving. Contact the club at email@example.com.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.