Monday 05 January 2009
We ask master carver Chris Pye to share with us his experiences of teaching
I've been teaching woodcarving to groups of up to twelve students at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship (CFC) in Rockport, Maine, USA for twelve years. The Center was founded in 1993 by Executive Director Peter Korn and through its strong and inspiring sense of mission, rapidly became a leader in the field of woodworking instruction. CFC runs a variety of programmes from three to nine months, a summer of shorter courses from veneering to woodcarving, and boasts a fine Gallery and Library.
In previous years I've instructed students in relief carving, lettering, mouldings, ornamental carving and sculptural design but for the last few years, I have led the same two classes: a week of basic woodcarving for newcomers and a (now two) week intermediate/advanced course for experienced carvers. Thus I have the very interesting experience of working both with complete beginners and with carvers seriously committed to improving their design and technical skills.
High and low reliefMy starting point as a woodcarving teacher is a belief in transferable skills - in other words, core techniques, skills and attitudes that can be applied to many different woodcarving subjects. In this week long class, I follow the plan in my book, Relief Carving: A Practical Introduction. Each student carves a low and high relief of a fish that they design according to an overall scheme. The fish itself is irrelevant - the exercise is purely a vehicle for learning skills such as sharpening and handling carving tools, and a variety of woodcarving techniques. I have taught this week-long course to literally hundreds of students since I first developed it and wrote the book, and have been asked several times whether I'm bored running it by now. I'm not. Although the process and subject remain the same, the students are always changing. This course is by far the most important one I teach - if I can instil good habits and techniques right at the beginning then students have a good technical basis on which to build their woodcarving visions.
At the beginningWe begin at the very beginning, with the carving tools. New carving tools are invariably 'sharpened' by young men with no interest in carving and 'sharp' out of the box does not mean the tool cuts well. While improving their tools, students become familiar with holding them and this takes away a lot of the mystique and trepidation that many beginners feel. The next two days are taken up with low relief and I get to witness newcomers carving wood for the first time. I demonstrate a stage in carving the fish; the students then go to their benches to work on their own. Perhaps it's how we are 'wired' - our manual dexterity and ability to visualise, but I can tell how a student will take to carving within a very short while. I don't think it's an understatement to say that I see students fall in love. On the other hand, others struggle: these need to understand that success in carving comes mainly through persistence, practice - doing it - and to be inspired to keep going.
In the final two days we tackle the high relief carving of the fish, re-using and consolidating what we have learned. At the end of the week, the whole class of twelve gathers to show their finished carvings and we get to see the enormous effort they have put into the week and the promise of carvings to come.
Intermediate/advanceThe intermediate/advance class is meant for those committed to carving: woodcarvers, who work at it regularly. Students are essentially self-sufficient, bringing along their own tools and projects - which I have normally discussed with them beforehand. From lettering to pierced relief, gothic tracery to figures, animals to acanthus leaves, the make-up of class projects is as rich and varied as those attending it.
The real difference between this and my other technique-based classes is the emphasis on design - 'visual literacy'. Carving skills understandably predominate at the start of a carver's career, but these are only a means to an end - what matters is the final piece, what your viewer sees and experiences. This, for me, is the most exciting aspect of carving. Moving beyond the 'how to' to the 'why?' is a quantum leap for many students and I can sometimes feel minds and visions expanding.
A rich feature of this course is the sharing of experience within the group. The class regularly tours each other's benches to see how individual work is progressing, the problems and successes. Most carvers work on their own and benefit from sharing their struggles and joys with others. They say 'to teach is to learn twice' and it's true - I find that teaching both beginners and more advance students has really helped me understand carving better and stimulated many new ideas of my own.