Carving out a niche

Imagine being a painter and having Rembrandt or Van Gogh as a teacher.

Or, being a pianist and having the opportunity to be tutored by Beethoven.

If you can imagine those things, you’ll have a good idea of what the 14 woodcarvers who gathered at the Russell Fire Department’s Kenwood Station over the weekend might have felt like.

The group, all members of the Ashland Area Woodcarvers, participated in a class taught by one of the true masters of the art.

Pete LeClair, a nationally and internationally renown carver whose specialty is caricatures, made the 11-hour drive from his home in Gardner, Mass., to teach the three-day class at the fire station.

“We were really fortunate to get him,” said Allen Woods, a member of the local carvers’ organization. “He’s usually booked.”

LeClair normally teaches more than 30 seminars a year, Woods said.

It was Woods who convinced LeClair to make the trip to Russell. A caricature carver himself, he said he had previously taken classes from LeClair and had asked if he’d be willing to come if there was enough interest.

The class cost $100 per person, Wood said.

LeClair, 74, a retired operating engineer, said he took up the hobby of carving in 1973 as a means of relaxing, and of passing the time while working midnight shifts at his job.

When he first got into the hobby, LeClair said he knew a number of other carvers who specialized in birds. While he admired their work, he said he “didn’t have the attention span” to do all the detailing required to make them look right. So, he gravitated to caricatures instead.

While they might not be as intricate as those bird carvings, the amount of detail LeClair packs into his pieces is nothing less than astonishing.

Individual whiskers on the characters with beards can be clearly picked out. And hey, is that a cigar in the corner of one’s mouth??

The characters’ eyes, too, are so expressive that they make them almost look as though they could be alive.

LeClair does two different types of carvings —?small ones he mounts on wine-bottle corks and refers to as “bottle stoppers” and full busts. He said the former take him about 2 1?2 hours each to complete; the latter about four hours.

With each type, LeClair starts with a chunk of wood cut roughly to shape with a bandsaw. He then uses a series of hand tools to add detail and finishes them off by painting them with acrylic colors.

One thing LeClair never does is sell his creations, even though he said he constantly has people asking if they can buy them. That, he said, would make his hobby seem too much like work.

He will sometimes donate them to charitable organizations to be sold as fund-raisers, though. He said the bottle-stoppers he donates routinely fetch around $300.

LeClair said he was a “closest hobbyist” until 1990, when he decided to start teaching classes and sharing his techniques. And, that, he said, is the aspect of the hobby he enjoys the most.

In addition to teaching classes all over the U.S., LeClair said he has also done seminars in England, Wales and Australia.

He said one of his proudest accomplishments was winning a whittling contest in Texas in 1994.

“I was the first non-Texan to ever win that event,” he said.

The Ashland Area Woodcarvers group has been around since the late 1970s, Woods said. The group has about 70 members, about 30 of whom are active, and meets every Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Steelworkers hall on Carter Avenue.

Woods said he got into carving about two years ago. The hobby is a family affair for him, His wife, Gina, also participates, his brother-in-law, Roy Prince, is president of the group, and Roy’s brother, Jerry, is also a member. Additionally, Woods’ niece, Trisha Rademacher, 16, a Russell High School sophomore, is the club’s youngest member.

At Saturday’s sessions, Rademacher was working on a relief carving of the “Star?Wars”?character Yoda. She said she took up the hobby about 2 1?2 years ago as a tribute to her grandfather, the late Roy E. Prince.

“It’s just relaxing,” she said.

KENNETH?HART can be reached at [email protected] or (606) 326-2654.

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