In addition to her expert instruction on carving a classical leaf motif, in”Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” author Mary May also shares stories from her life, such as the one excerpted below.
The book is a deep exploration into the iconic acanthus leaf, which has been a cornerstone of Western ornamentation for thousands of years. May, a professional carver and instructor, covers carving tools and sharpening with the efficiency of someone who has taught for years. Then she plunges the reader directly into the work.
It begins with a simple leaf that requires just a few tools. The book then progresses through 13 variations of leaves up to the highly ornate Renaissance and Rococo forms. Each lesson builds on the earlier ones as the complexity slowly increases.
Being a student of woodcarving is not at all like being in a school program where there is a “final exam” at the end of the term to determine passage into the next level. My first woodcarving teacher, Konstantinos Papadakis, is a true master carver who specializes in the Byzantine style of woodcarving, one of the defining features of the beautifully ornate interiors of traditional Greek Orthodox churches. Stepping into the foyer of one of these churches, you are often greeted with an intricately carved “icon stand,” created to hold a vibrant painting of a venerated saint. Walking into the main sanctuary, you will be amazed by the remarkably detailed altar screens covered on every surface with carved leaves, vines and symbols of the Christian faith.
On one side of the altar will be a beautifully carved wooden structure called an Epitaphios, which holds a sacred tapestry depicting the laying of Christ in the tomb, an important symbolic part of the Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration. The annual springtime tradition is for children of the church to decorate the Epitaphios with flowers, threading the stems through the pierced carvings.The priest and several elders of the church carry it in a somber funeral procession around the outside of the church as the entire congregation follows in mourning. Their collective sadness at the death of their Savior is soon replaced when they re-enter the church for a grand celebration, rejoicing in the discovery of Christ’s resurrection.
Needless to say, when I began to learn woodcarving from Konstantinos, his teaching focused on mastering the nuances of the Byzantine style. I practiced carving what seemed like miles of continuous vines, curling and twisting along flat paneled surfaces, intermixed with grapes and symbolic images, especially the traditional peacocks and doves. This Byzantine style is easily recognizable, featuring highly stylized leaves that are splayed and pointed. Sharp “V” cuts shape the surface of leaves and vines. And the many angles and sharply defined lines create dynamic shadows. When viewed from a distance, these elements combine to decorate pieces that have a 3D, almost lifelike quality.
After three hard and rewarding years working and studying under the guidance of Konstantinos, I decided to venture across the globe to learn different styles and techniques from other master woodcarvers. It was to be much like the journeyman of old, beginning their working lives by setting out to work in various workshops to glean as much knowledge as possible from different masters. So without a formal “exam,” how could I prove that I was ready to take this next big step? I needed to design, build and carve a traditional Byzantine-style icon stand, and that is just what I set out to do.
It was finally time to bring together all of the skills I had learned in my three years with Konstantinos. I began by designing the four carved panels that made up the main body of the icon stand. The two side panels had a stylized peacock carved in the center surrounded by curling, twisting grape leaves. The front and rear panels were decorated with the same pointed, scrolling leaves around two medallions. I drilled countless holes into every tiny space between the details to prepare the way for cutting out all of the background wood. By inserting a thin scroll saw blade into the holes and patiently following each twisting curve, each little background shape finally dropped cleanly to the floor to create the pierced panels. It was a grueling week sawing out every portion of the background, but I was motivated by the knowledge that I was just preparing for the fun part.
Finally, after all of the drawing, drilling and sawing, I began the carving. I spent the next three weeks intently detailing all of the panels, carving the peacocks, finalizing the edge mouldings and capitals, and hand-shaping the tall spiral legs. It was a long and exhausting month, but when I proudly unveiled the finished icon stand, I was filled with a deep satisfaction, knowing that I had passed the test. I was now ready to continue my journey, working with and learning from other master carvers. I do look back fondly on those long years of practice and study, and though I have completed many challenging carving projects in the years since, the icon stand holds a place of honor in my portfolio. I have carried it with me for 22 years. These days, it may inspire me with its company in my workshop, dominate the corner of our living room or occupy a place in a furniture show or exhibit, but it will always have a special place in my heart as a representation of two major passages in my life. The first was the “final exam” that marked a major transition in my carving life, and the second was when my husband and I knelt before it humbly as we were married, the priest using it as a lectern in our beautiful outdoor wedding.