Around 9 a.m. every Thursday, the Sharp Road Park Senior Center front room fills with the smell of sawdust and fresh coffee, and the sounds of carving implements hitting wooden blocks, conversation and laughter.
“We come and drink coffee, shoot the bull, and carve until about 11, 11:30,” Larry Oubre Jr. said.
The Pelican Wood Carver’s Guild’s mission is primarily learning and teaching the art of wood carving, but Oubre admits they often do about as much talking as they do carving.
Several pieces carved by guild members were on display during August at the Bluebonnet Branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, and the guild makes sure they have a presence at several area festivals — The LSU Rural Life Museum’s Harvest Days, Sept. 27-28 is coming up.
It’s not about making a living, said Sandy Oubre, treasurer of the guild, and Larry’s wife — most members are retired, and though they joke with her that she is a professional — she once sold a Santa Claus figurine for $25.
If one factored in the value of the time put into the carvings, in many cases, they’d cost more than people would be willing to pay.
Some guild members make their living as carvers, Oubre said. Burt Fleming, who carves shapes out of logs with chain saws, travels the country to work on commissioned pieces — he carved a pair of totems out of oak trees at a home on Kenilworth Parkway for another guild member.
But those cases are the exception, rather than the rule.
It’s more a way to craft gifts that come from the heart, with an investment of time and effort into a one-of-a-kind piece, she said.
And all the guild members present for the last meeting agreed. Most either keep their pieces or give them away.
It’s a long-standing Christmas tradition, in fact, that guild members bring hand-carved ornaments to trade as Christmas gifts.
“Generally, we have to get started thinking about Christmas pretty early,” James Brumfield said.
He’s working on a type of ornament that will have joints inserted between the wooden pegs he’s carving, allowing the pieces to move.
His piece is being carved in the round, the term used for carving on all sides. Right next to him sit James Soileau and John LeRoux, both of whom are using mostly gouging-type tools to chip out pieces of wood from a flat surface, from one side only. This is referred to as chipping.
It’s very similar to relief carving, which John Ory, seated on the other end of the table, is working on, in which a pattern traced on top of the wood block is used as a guide to carve away layers of landscape background and foreground to reveal a three-dimensional image, but using only one side of the wood.
While it may seem intimidating to some, at first — especially those without art training — anyone can learn the craft, said Patti Guedry.
“Even if you think you don’t have an artistic bone in your body,” Guedry said, “there are techniques that make this possible, if you’re willing to spend some time with it. It takes practice.”
First comes the boot
Upon joining the Pelican Wood Carver’s Guild, every new member usually starts off by shaping a block of wood into a small boot shape.
It’s something of a temperament test, said Guedry, working on a project beside husband, Stan.
“If they don’t enjoy it, or don’t have the patience to get the shape they want, they usually know pretty fast,” Pattie Guedry said.
Pattie Guedry freely admits she and her husband are hooked on carving. They spend most Thursday mornings with fellow guild members at the Sharp Road Park Senior Center, 501 Sharp Road, working on wooden carvings in various states of completion.
On a recent Thursday, she works on a wooden Santa Claus figure, while her husband tries his hand at carving details into an eagle-shape walking cane head. The guild members make these and donate them to veterans, Stan Guedry said.
They come to catch up with the group, they come to work on something meaningful to them, and they come to learn.
“No matter what you want to learn how to do, there’s usually someone here who can show you how,” said Gary Guice.
Guice, who has been carving since he was a kid, is the go-to bird carving expert, according to the rest of the guild members seated around him, but he can carve a likeness of just about any animal.
“Just as long as I have a picture. I can make it look the same,” he said. He sits next to Patti Guedry, where occasionally Guedry shows him the eagle head piece, and Guice offers advice on proportion and placement of various features on the bird.
Guice has been working for a while now on male and female pairs of birds, which he carves, paints and mounts onto pieces of driftwood he finds on river banks. He learned how to insert glass eyes on his pieces, and to shape legs, feet and claws out of copper wire from other guild members.
“I believe it helps keep the mind fit,” said Charles Weigel, 81, who carves details on tiny wooden leaves that he will turn into magnets using a power drill and a set of magnifying glasses that allow him to see up close without bending. The use of power tools allowed him to keep carving even when he lost dexterity in his hands, he said as the drill whirred away in the background.
In addition to the weekly meetings — there is an additional meeting at the Bishop Ott Center on the third Monday of every month, Sandy Oubre said — the guild maintains a library of pattern and instruction books, and occasionally invites guest teachers to come in and instruct members for private sessions.
“You can spend as much or as little time and money as you want on it,” Larry Oubre said.
All you need one sharp knife and a block of wood, but, as Oubre points out, people who stick around tend to amass a collection of implements.
For more information on the guild, go to one of the meetings, or contact Sandy Oubre, (225) 272-0828, or e-mail her at email@example.com. Dues are $30 per year.
Or, visit the guild’s booth at the Rural Life Harvest Days, appl027.lsu.edu/rlm/rurallifeweb.nsf/$Content/ Harvest+Days? OpenDocument