Ask Jack Weller, a thickset, retired, East Cobb manufacturing manager with heavy jowls and massive hands, how he spends his leisure time, he might curtly respond self-deprecatingly that all he does is sit and “make chips every day.” Observe Weller operating in his sawdust-coated workshop and you sense immediately that this seemingly gruff “Mr. Chips” has a soft heart for nature and a surgeon’s touch as a wood carver extraordinaire.
Weller’s creative expertise is not your grandfather’s idea of “whittlin’” away on a tree branch or small block of wood with a pocket knife, trying to fashion an animal figurine. Weller is careful to explain that his avocation represents a whole next generation of carving. Ironically, he did not pick up the trait directly from his dad.
As he tells it, back in his home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the plant manufacturing managers would often take a morning coffee break at a local diner to shoot the breeze, discuss politics and talk shop. One of the guys walked into the group one day boasting about a wood duck that he had carved. Looking at the piece, Weller did not make any critical comments at that moment, but harrumphed to himself: “I can make a duck a whole lot better than that.”
That was thirty years ago and “Mr. Chips” hasn’t stopped improving upon his first duck and his ensuing artwork. He has taken it several levels higher since winning his first competition at the prestigious Ward Foundation competition in Easton, Maryland where he won a blue ribbon for a white-fronted goose, only his second creation after the duck. He has since tried to discard that original duck several times, but his wife, Marian, religiously keeps hauling the relic out of the trash whenever her husband cleans up his work area.
More recently in the late 90’s, Weller’s fame went to the top of the totem pole at the Atlanta Woodworker’s Guild exhibition: his amazingly realistic bird carvings took home First, Second and Third Place awards from the judges, and he was voted Best of Show by the attendees.
Most people would have rested on their laurels, but not this wood maestro: his next phase of carving truly went up another notch. Soon after he encased his prize-winning red-tailed hawk, his songbirds, and other fabulous bird art in Plexiglas displays, he turned to history for further inspiration, saying, while he is still passionate about feeding and observing his real feathered friends, he felt that he had mastered making wooden facsimiles of them.
The 17th century Dutch-born, English master woodworker, Grinling Gibbons, is often recognized as the epitome of wood carvers. Weller just might be a reincarnated protégé of Gibbons, having thoroughly studied his biography as well as all of his works. Gibbon’s style is described by Weller as flamboyant, graceful cascades of flowers, fruits, and foliage. Upon reading and studying the black-and-white and color lithographs of Gibbons’ art, he sets out time and time again to emulate the intricate work of this peerless carver because he loves classical art with substance.
Dividing a lithograph into quadrants, Weller then draws free-hand to copy the elaborate floral, lace-like compositions of the master. Next, he magnifies the art several sizes on to oak tag paper, and proceeds to utilize what is called a ponce wheel to create a series of hundreds of marks or dots on a 2 – 2 ½” thick by three-foot long block of basswood.
While this method of designing sounds neat and simple, it is painstaking and requires the touch and patience of a master. Looking back to his high school aptitude tests, however, Weller relates that whenever he took such tests, the results always indicated that he was artistic. Still, even he could not visualize himself sitting in front of a canvas using oils, pen-and-ink, or acrylics. Little did he foresee that someday his art mode would be three dimensional and that he would eventually come to use both the creative side of his brain as well as the analytical/mechanical side.
An expert carver needs to know exactly how to use the instruments that will bring the form out of the block of wood. In Weller’s case, his tool collection includes dozens of carving chisels, skews and gouges, rubber mallets, knives, wood burners, and miniature finishing tools and bits, to name a few. All totaled, he probably has thousands of dollars invested in his tools, but what he can produce with them is priceless. His cabinet drawers contain an assortment of flower and leaf patterns, wax fruit, old photographs, and even a few left-over birds’ eyes and feet (plastic versions, that is).
While being interviewed, Weller absent-mindedly throws on his gun-metal gray, magnifier visor, reminiscent of a cross between a welder’s mask and a pair of World War II bomber pilot goggles. He instinctively grabs a gouge from a tray on a shelf and spots a slightly square edge on a leaf that needs to be more rounded and perfected.
The medium he uses is basswood, a softwood recognized as the mainstay of carvers. In fact, Gibbons used the same species, but the Europeans call it lime wood. The actual tree from which bass wood and lime wood originates is the linden tree.
It is most appropriate, then, that the wood of this tree continues to bear fruit and flowers long after the timber has been harvested. Weller has created a dozen or two of floral and leafy festoons that replicate Gibbons’ style. On other occasions he is inspired by the renowned Englishman but ventures on his own into new variations and original designs.
Gibbons’ signature piece, other than his many invaluable contributions to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, is a cravat he fashioned that was so realistic, it was actually worn on one occasion by the noted English writer and politician, Horace Walpole.
Weller has not only reproduced a stunning likeness of the multi-pleated bow and knotted piece, he has gone two articles of clothing better. One time he caught a glance of his denim work shirt sitting on a hanger nearby and now that wooden replica, complete with folds and creases, hangs on the wall in his study, coated with shellac giving it a startling real, starched, ready-to-wear, appearance. Weller has also duplicated a wooden pair of his work shoes, complete with laces and wrinkles that will floor a visitor.
Weller rarely ever paints any of his subjects because, as he puts it, you “never know what’s under that paint.” He would rather be a purist than to cover up any blemishes by painting. Another of his idiosyncrasies is that, other than the wood burning tool used to feather the birds, and some finishing bits, he does not succumb to any power tools to extract the tens of thousands of chips he has made.
As you might imagine, when Weller creates, it is not work or a task; it is done for the sheer love and pleasure of art. Time spent per piece is never recorded by him. Time is “meaningless” he says when he is concentrating on a project. When asked to name the opus of his that he prefers the most, Weller alludes back to that concentration of the piece at hand as his favorite.
So what goals has he set for himself lately? He is now on his fifth garland where he is utilizing thicker, 3” stock. The challenge, he explains, lies in carving more deeply than with thinner pieces of wood. The deeper he goes, the better he is able to get more shadows and stronger relief. The intention is to achieve results that reflect the floral arrangement to be classified as more like fine art. It also allows him to use his imagination more, yet it is this “visualization” that is the hardest challenge for him. As a truly gifted artist, he eventually comes to know it when he sees it.
Marian Weller will tell you the irony is that the crusty, but loveable, “Mr. Chips” to the outside world transforms into a perfectionist in the world of his art where he has an everlasting reservoir of patience to perform the multiple, meticulous removals of miniscule bits of wood. Her husband reasons that he has the ability to be patient because “I love art.”
Over the course of his work career, the World War II veteran is quite proud of the 18 patents that he owns. More likely, however, it will be his dozens of magnificent creations that will leave a much greater legacy to his family and to the world of wood carving.