Monday 9 July 2018
One thing about travelling a lot as a woodcarver is that life can never possibly be dull. I get to see all sorts of different styles of carving as well as meeting some incredibly talented and interesting people.
One such person came into my life when I started visiting the US in the late 90s. He had recently retired from his job at a power plant that had kept him busy for twenty years, and was starting a new life as a full-time caricature carver and teacher. This man, Pete LeClair, has now become one of the best-known caricature carvers in the US, and is in great demand all over the country to run carving courses for his ever-increasing band of enthusiasts. Although his home is in Gardner Massachusetts, he is seldom there longer than it takes to get prepared for the next journey to some far off state!
In 2004 after pressure from me to find a small window in his schedule to make his first visit to the UK we actually got him, with his wife Rose, to demonstrate his skills to the British woodcarving fraternity.
The Brits have never been particularly enthusiastic about caricature carving so I didn't anticipate that he would get much of a reception. How wrong could I be? He appeared at the monthly meeting of the Essex region of the BWA and started carving quietly (for Pete anyway!) in the corner. Within ten minutes the whole of the assembled gathering, bar one, had sat down and were busy following Pete's instructions to carve a small face on the corner of a piece of basswood (Tilia Americana).
A similar thing happened when he attended the Association's AGM in Staffordshire. This has now become the norm for each of the two subsequent visits he has made to the UK except that any teaching sessions that are arranged with him now are fully subscribed before he arrives!
Pete has that effect! His enthusiasm is enormous and highly infectious. Wherever he goes he has knives and pieces of wood handy. He came to watch me play cricket one day and within fifteen minutes had a masterclass with the boys on the pavilion balcony! Getting them to stop to go in to bat was an unexpected experience!
As a non-caricature carver I have found his approach fascinating as his considerable knowledge of human facial proportions and anatomy is applied in a very different way from anything I might do.
The American Caricature Carvers Association, of which Pete is a member, is made up of the very best carvers in the field, and yet they are all very different in their approach.
Pete believes that, even though a caricature is actually a distortion of the human form, it should still be believable. He will take elements of a face and do amazing things with it, yet the final product still looks like someone you know.
This is as a result of a constant search for interesting characteristics: a nose here or an eye there. Expect him to point out anything interesting that he has noticed in someone close at hand, not always quietly, but then Pete never does anything particularly quietly!
The 5 rules
One thing you can guarantee if you are in Pete's company is that you will learn a lot. He will point out things in the human face that you would never have thought about. His comment about the nose going back into the face as far as it sticks out has revolutionised nose carving among our carvers. Nostrils now fit nicely in the corners of the laugh lines rather than being stuck onto the top lip, in most cases anyway.
He also firmly believes that there are five rules for carving:
1. Get a sharp tool
2. Get the best bit if wood that you can
I wonder how many of us follow these simple rules?
If practise was all that is necessary to be a good carver then it is no wonder that Pete is as good as he is. In each of his visits to stay with us I reckon he has carved between sixty and a hundred carvings, all of which have been given away to anyone who shows an interest including children.
He gets up at around 4.30am and has completed two or three small carvings by the time I join him in the workshop for a coffee.
He never draws anything or makes maquettes. He does a lot of experimenting with ideas but generally works from an expression that he has in mind, or a particular character that he wants to create. Some are quite complex while others are very simple and quick, some painted and some without any finish at all. Any painting he does is with acrylic watercolour, and is very subtle with only a hint of colour.
Every carving is unique and immediately recognisable as a member of the ever-increasing LeClair family of characters!
With luck he will be over here again next year. If you want an unforgettable experience join us. You won't regret it!