By Bob Duncan
Chris Pye is a well-known name in the carving community. In addition to his comprehensive books and articles, Chris has carved pieces for the Royal Family of Great Britain. Chris shares his knowledge with others and is one of the key players responsible for teaching traditional carving techniques to aspiring artists.
“Carvers who win Woodcarving Illustrated’s coveted Woodcarver of the Year award must meet a tough combination of requirements,” Alan Giagnocavo, publisher of Woodcarving Illustrated said. “Firstly, the quality of their pieces must show a devotion to excellence. Secondly, they must show a generosity of spirit in teaching others to pass the craft along. Finally, they must leverage their skills in carving and teaching even further through their writings. Chris Pye passes all of these tests with flying colors, making us proud, on behalf of our readers, to name him 2008’s winner.”
“I always feel that I’m only just warming up,” Chris said. “Carving is real. A bit of metal, a bit of tree; it couldn’t be any simpler. An Egyptian carver 4,500 years ago would understand my workshop.” Humble words from the artist who carves trophies and gifts for Great Britain’s royal family. His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, has commissioned Chris to carve trophies for various events. When Prince Charles married the Duchess of Cornwall, the staff at Clarence House, the London residence of the Prince of Wales, commissioned Chris to carve a breakfast table rose bowl for the couple.
Chris’ work appears in private residences, cathedrals, and public buildings all over the world. But he never touched a chisel or gouge until he was 23 years old. Chris was always artistic, but he focused on science and math in school. It was a natural progression for him to follow this focus and he ended up in medical school. After four years, in 1975, he decided medical school wasn’t for him. Although he had never held a chisel, he decided to take a class with master carver Gino Masero.
“I spent a weekend with Gino and took to carving like a duck to water,” Chris said. “I just knew how to do things before Gino explained them to me. So I got a plank of wood, a bench, and tools, and just did it.”
Chris set up a carving shop in an upstairs room in a Victorian house. He worked three days a week in an office setting and carved the other days. Chris eventually moved his shop to a small storefront. He put his carvings in the store’s windows and people bought them.
“People started asking me to carve things and I never said no,” Chris said. While Chris continued to take on commissions, Gino evolved into a mentor for Chris, and influences Chris’ work to this day. But Chris says he is a self-taught carver. “All carvers are self-taught,” Chris said. “No one can do it for us. Gino started me in the right direction. It was like osmosis; I just absorbed the information.”
Chris gave up carving twice when times were slow. But he came back each time. “There’s something about carving when it’s at its best,” Chris said. “It’s an absolute joy. Everything is focused on the cutting edge of the tool. The edge is attached to the tool; the tool is attached to my hand, my body, the floor. All my thoughts and feelings are focused on the activity of carving. It’s a real buzz. Carving is therapeutic. It’s meditational at its best. You are very focused on what you are doing at each moment.”
In 2003, Chris was inducted into the Master Carvers Association, the group of professional carvers in Great Britain. “They are world-class carvers,” Chris said. “You must be elected into the association. You submit work and it is judged by your peers. There are no boxes they can tick and decide you are good enough. These people just know what fine carving is when they see it.”
Becoming a member of the association was important for Chris. “I never felt I could call myself a master without becoming a part of the Master Carvers Association,” he said.
Chris got his start as an author when the British magazine Woodcarving was launched. The magazine’s editor contacted Chris and asked him to write an article. “When [the editor] got the article, he said it was exemplary,” Chris said. “He didn’t need to alter anything. I didn’t know I could do that.”
Chris was able to write magazine articles quickly and he enjoyed writing them. After publishing a few articles, he started talking to the editors about writing a book on woodcarving tools. “Every carving book at the time had a tiny bit about tools,” Chris said. “But for me, it’s always been the tools. There is no carving without the tools, and the cutting edge of the tool is the focus of what you are doing. Knowledge about tools is crucial. So I wrote Woodcarving Tools, Materials & Equipment hoping that no one would ask me about tools again,” Chris added with a laugh. “It didn’t work.” In all, Chris has written eight books and produced three DVDs with Rob Cosman. He has also written a host of articles for Woodcarving Illustrated and Woodcarving magazines.
In addition to writing, Chris has taught hundreds of people how to carve. His first taste of teaching was instructing evening classes at a local technical college. The students did well and Chris really enjoyed it. Currently, Chris offers mainly one-on-one instruction at his home studio. He does teach a few classes each year at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, www.woodschool.org.
“Chris enriches the lives of all of the students he comes into contact with,” according to Peter Korn, executive director of the center. “Chris has been teaching at the center for more than a decade. Every year we offer intermediate and advanced classes with Chris. Most of these students have studied with Chris in the past and want to come back and study again. Chris is very humorous,” Peter added. “He has dry British humor. He is warm and encouraging. He communicates very clearly, especially when it comes to getting across small details.”
Chris finds his talents for carving, writing, and teaching enhance each other. “All three of my passions feed off each other,” Chris said. “I learn more when I teach, which helps my writing and my carving. Writing helps me to explain things better when I’m teaching and forces me to examine why I do what I do when I carve. The more I carve, the better I can explain, both in writing and in front of a class.”
In recent years, Chris has also created a comprehensive website and offers a variety of information online at www.chrispye-woodcarving.com. He sends out a monthly e-mail newsletter offering free carving advice and information. “It’s fascinating,” Chris said. “I didn’t start the website to evangelize woodcarving. It picked up speed on its own.” Chris has 6,500 subscribers to his e-mail newsletter, and the e-books posted on his website have been downloaded more than 120,000 times.
Lora S. Irish, the 2007 Woodcarver of the Year and a popular author, said Chris has a knack for communicating well. Lora and Chris worked together with Shawn Cipa on the book Wood Spirits and Green Men. “The way he interprets the design, Chris makes it easy to share and teach that work to the hobbyist,” Lora said. “He has brought the carving hobby a new and refreshing look at classic historical carvings. He has opened up a range of carving that most hobbyists would never try. Chris expresses himself very well in his written tutorials,” Lora continued. “That is a skill few people have—to express in words what you are doing so someone else can verbally see exactly what you are doing and can copy you.”
Chris’ dedication to the art is evident. He continues to push the boundaries of his own skills and works diligently to promote the traditions of classic woodcarving. Chris continues to inspire and teach others by sharing his knowledge through books, articles, videos, and classes, as well as his website and e-newsletter. His love of woodcarving, and desire to nurture that love in others, earns him the well-deserved title of 2008 Woodcarving Illustrated Woodcarver of the Year.