Friday, February 24, 2012

Carvers are Starvers

Bookmark and ShareThere is universal truth in the old pronouncement, "Carvers are starvers", especially as it applies to woodcarvers! Although Riemenscheider and Gibbons spring to mind as examples of woodcarvers who enjoyed great success and recognition for their art, they are a rarity and don't accurately represent the legions of craftsmen (and more recently women) who toiled away in obscurity.
Whereas the woodcarver is a person of some renown and social bearing in many cultures from the South Pacific, Africa and the Northwest Coast of North America, they were generally held in very low esteem in Europe. To this day, the European and North American perception has changed very little.
Woodcarving is often viewed as little more than an engaging pastime. Its the thing your granddad does when he's got a bit of free time to wile away. Even when confronted by the work of a real master of the craft, most take one look at the price-tag and shake their heads. If the work were done in stone or metal there would be no question of its value...but wood seems to elicit an entirely different response.
What sets me off on this little diatribe is a recent purchase I made while on holiday in Mexico.

I had been on the lookout for a Mayan mask but after looking through the usual mass produced souvenir tat available at all the tourist sites, had given up on the the idea of actually buying one. However, a chance stop in a small town lead me to a shop selling masks of much higher quality than the ones I had so far seen. Eventually, I settled on two masks that I wanted and got down to the business of negotiating a price. I expected to pay a decent amount for work that was as well done as was apparent on the masks I was buying. The dealer's opening price was 900 pesos (aprox 75 dollars) which he voluntarily dropped to 700 if I was prepared to buy the two masks at once. Probably he expected me to counter with an offer of 4 0r 5 hundred which may or may not have been the correct thing to do...after all, he's already probably paid the carver something like 200 for both masks...but as a carver I felt real reluctance to belittle the work of the carvers (even if they are never likely to see the financial reward), after all, we're talking less than 30 bucks a mask!!! I made a half-hearted counter of 650 and then couldn't be bothered to counter again when he made his pitch for staying at 700. No doubt he viewed me as negotiating 'sucker of the year' but I just couldn't get past how little I was paying for work that took great effort, skill and time.
Although I am thrilled with my masks and have spent a good deal of time enjoying the art and the craft which has gone into them...I am also saddened knowing that somewhere, a carver toiled many hours creating a lovely piece of work which probably barely paid for a day or two's worth of tortillas and some chicken. Even more sadly, this reflects the situation of generations of European carvers who toiled in the great cathedrals and country estates we all 'ooo and aaah' over now. It continues to reflect the current situation where very few people can be bothered to get into professional woodcarving because the ability to earn a living is so restricted and it probably will reflect what to expect in the future when hand woodcarving will likely die out, to be replaced buy CNC cutters which will churn out pieces a dime a dozen.
Whenever I get the opportunity to carve a lovespoon for a client, it's never far from my mind that I might represent the last generation who does it this way. My spoons are unashamedly expensive compared to the commercial variety BUT they are severely underpriced in terms of the quality, knowledge and art which goes into them. It's a tightrope which is very hard not to fall off!

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