20 minutes with Chris Pye archive

Thursday 6 May 2010

Master carver Chris Pye takes a quick break to bring us a little insight into his working ways

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When did you start to carve?

I've always felt I fell into it. In 1975 I had left medical school and was looking for something more three-dimensional to satisfy my artistic impulses; stonecarving was on my mind. Circuitously, I spent a weekend with the master carver Gino Masero, picking up carving tools for the first time and, as Matsuo Basho wrote about the frog: plop!

What made you continue carving?

It's an odd thing, almost an addiction. Carving just seems to fit the way I'm wired. I get such a high out of the act of carving that it rarely seems like work. One day I think someone's going to find out that I'm just having fun and stop me!

What inspires you when you carve?

I carve a broad spectrum of different things and it's not so much the project as the presence of an opportunity that gets me going. I'm just getting the hang of carving and this next project will be another chance to improve. I love being totally in control: coming up with the design, gluing up the wood, carving, finishing; so I've brought something into existence. And then getting paid!

What are you currently working on?

I'm just finishing an armorial for a scholar of vampirism. It involves a relief of a wolf's head in elm (Ulmus spp) and a strange script called Bogomil. I like the fact that carving takes me to such strange places.

Which tool would you not you be without and why?

That's an impossible question! It's the one in my hand at the moment. Until I put it down and pick up another.

Which is your preferred way of carving and why?

I work primarily straight from the chisel. It has a meditative immediacy, like drawing, say.

What do you think has been your biggest carving achievement?

Being a member of the Master Carvers Association, and carving for HRH the Prince of Wales have been great honours. As for carving itself, my biggest sense of achievement is in the little things, the details. For example, in a much larger carving I had to include a tiny beaver on a riverbank with a stick in its mouth. It just appeared before my eyes, perfect, without me trying. I don't quite know how I did it but for me it was the best bit of the whole thing.

Whose work do you most admire?

The Kamakura period in Japan produced some of the finest woodcarving ever and one sculptor, Unkei (1151-1223), stands out among an astonishingly talented group of carvers. I've only ever seen pictures but it's my dream one day to go as a pilgrim to see his work at Nara.

If you were not a carver what would you be?

I'd like to have been the Zen monk who rakes the sand of the Karesansui rock garden in the Ryoan-ji Temple in Japan.

Describe the view from your workbench and the area where you live

I live near Hay-on-Wye in the Black Mountains on the border of Wales. In the distance there are green fields laced with hedges and dotted with sheep, and the long ridge of Offa's dyke. Close by is the garden, my woodshed and some trees.

Do you listen to music when you carve?

Depending on what I am doing I listen to music, spoken word or silence. I use the internet rather than the radio these days, listening to plays or Melvyn Bragg's archive of In Our Time for example. I recently married an American who also carves, and we listen online to WCLZ, the local radio station in Portland, Maine.

What would be your ideal project?

I would like a huge project that takes me years to design and carve and get lost in, along the lines of what used to happen in cathedrals.

Are you a self-critic of your work?

Yes. I used to give myself quite a hard time when I didn't reach the standard I set myself; luckily that spurred me rather than depressed me. But I've become much more forgiving over the years, accepting my limitations with a chuckle. It's only a piece of wood after all.


Tegan Foley

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Chris Pye , 20 minutes

Further Information

To see more of Chris Pye's work, or to find out more about the courses he teaches, see his website