“Everything I do is a dying art,” said Angela M. Walker. The president of the Lowcountry Woodcarvers was continuing her quest to keep the art of wood carving alive and well during a recent workshop at Old Santee Canal Park in Moncks Corner.
The local carving club held a class at the park, led by Walker and fellow club member Nate Parr, in an effort to introduce new students to the art of wood carving.
The Old Santee’s Interpretive Center, populated with historical artifacts from the area, served as a fitting backdrop for an event celebrating a craft that predates the 218-year-old remains of the park’s namesake by thousands of years.
In the center’s Oak Room, resembling the rustic interior of a log cabin complete with a stone fireplace and rough-hewn wooden walls, about a dozen students sat at folding tables learning the basic techniques of carving under the watchful eyes of the instructors.
With a rough-cut piece of basswood in one gloved hand and a Murphy carving knife in the other, the students made their first tentative cuts into the wood, each stroke of the blade bringing them closer to the realization of the final form.
“The finished product is not as important as learning how to do it,” Erick Pratt said, fashioning a figure of a shaggy dog.
The Summerville resident was attending a Woodcarvers event for the first time to learn the basic skills of carving, which he hopes to translate into designs etched in wood on homemade walking sticks.
Bonnie McGuire, a Woodcarver regular, was there to support the new woodworkers whose numbers she hopes the group can help grow.
“This is really trying to foster more people into wood carving,” McGuire said.
Walker and Parr provided hands-on instruction for the students, while the floor of the Oak Room grew littered with shavings and the air slowly filled with the smell of freshly-cut wood.
As the afternoon wore on, the room began to resemble the wood-strewn workshop in Oklahoma where decades ago Walker began her life as a woodworker.
The craft came into her life early, and like most ancient arts was passed down through the generations. In Walker’s case it was her mother, the owner of an antique restoration business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who introduced her to woodworking.
Under the tutelage of the shop’s professional carver she learned the core principles of woodworking and adopted the techniques of the form through a combination of observation and osmosis.
Those formative years come to life in Walker’s mind, resurrected in memories of late afternoon walks from school to her mother’s shop, where she worked the wood in the fading hours of the day.
“I was working by her side since the age of 12,” Walker said. “It’s in my blood.
In 1996, Walker and her husband purchased six acres on John’s Island, where she lives and operates Aristocrat Antiques, specializing in fine-hand restoration weaving and hand carving.
“If you can do it with your hands, I can do it,” she said.
Walker laid down roots in the Lowcountry but it took a few years for her to become part of the local carving community.
It was not until Thanksgiving Day 1999 when she discovered the Lowcountry Woodcarvers at the Woodcraft store in Charleston.
While perusing the shop, Walker’s eyes fell upon an object that would connect her with the group which she now spearheads. At the checkout counter was a small hand-written sign saying the Lowcountry Woodcarvers would be calling the store their new home.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a carving group in this vicinity until I went into that store.”
In anticipation of her first meeting with the Woodcarvers, Walker returned home and pulled out all her tools, some dating back to the days in her mother’s shop. From that point forward there was no looking back.
“I attended the meeting the following January and I haven’t missed one since,” Walker said.
For a long time, Walker says she was the only woman in the group until she convinced others to join. “I said if I can do this, so can you.”
As a result, Walker said the club’s membership is now almost half and half.
In addition to bringing more women into the fold, Walker served as the club’s treasurer before becoming president.
In this role, she recently found a new home for the Woodcarvers after reaching out to master craftsman Sam Sprouse, founder of the Charleston Woodworking School.
“With open arms he said ‘come and use our school’,” Walker said. The newly built facility off Ashley River Road, dedicated to woodworking instruction, now serves as the club’s meeting place.
In addition to her work with the Lowcountry Woodcarvers, Walker is introducing woodworking to a new generation as an art teacher at Charleston Collegiate School in John’s Island.
“I’m concentrating on bringing shop class back to the schools,” she said.
Walker teaches introductory woodworking to the students beginning with seventh-graders, whom she says are highly receptive to the medium.
“You can hear a pin drop in that room,” Walker said. “They are so into it. You just do not know how much every single student loves to carve.”
Despite the demands of her profession, within the crowded hours of the day Walker said she finds time to satisfy her own artistic appetite.
“I can get so mesmerized in my carving that all of the sudden it’s four in the morning, and I have to get up at six,” she said
Her favorite carvings to make are what she calls spirit faces.
Governed by the grain of the wood and a steady hand, Walker allows the unique figures to emerge from a once blank slate.
“I just take away the wood that doesn’t belong, and find the face within,” Walker said.
An experienced woodworker, Walker prefers to work in nature’s more challenging mediums like mahogany or cottonwood bark. The harder woods present more of a challenge to the carver, but yield superior results.
“I guess I’m a masochist,” she said.
Walker’s passion for woodworking is matched only by her commitment to spreading the gospel of the craft to current and future generations.
“The more exposure to the art and the more people we can share it with, the more potential there is to carry on,” Walker said.
Walker’s school teaching, professional woodworking, involvement with the Lowcountry Woodcarvers and Charleston Wood Guild stands as testimony to her unwavering dedication to the cause of keeping an age-old art form safe from extinction in a modern world.
The Lowcountry Woodcarvers meet the second Monday of every month except December. The next meeting will take place 7-9 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Charleston Woodworking School.