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Artist makes transition from painting to carving

    Alice Marthaler began her wood carving hobby in 1997 and is anticipating her largest project ever this summer. Alice and her husband, Martin, are longtime Marshall residents but since their retirements have become part of the snowbird flock that spend the winter in a warmer southern climate. Their choice of southern destination is New Mexico.

     “I first began painting when we were spending our winter in New Mexico. The spot we were in had a large room set aside for different crafts. Someone came in to give lessons, and I enjoyed painting for a long time. My husband had heard that there were some wood carvers in the Marshall area and thought it might be a hobby he could enjoy, so he picked up a carving set, but he didn’t learn carving; he learned he didn’t have the patience for wood carving and gave it up. Then I heard about a carving class and decided to give it a try. Each class teaches about a dozen people. Everyone is given a pattern with the project, and everyone’s pattern is the same, but no two carvings turn out the same. Every person has a different technique and a style all their own. Even though a carver has been at it for a while we will still take a class, because, like all carvers, even instructors have their own special style, and it is always interesting, and it gets you into carving something you have never done before,” said Marthaler.

    For most of her pieces, Marthaler prefers basswood for a few reasons. It is a soft wood, with a nice, even grain, and it is white. She has a supplier who lives up north and is appreciative of that, because buying wood that is roughed out for a piece is an expensive way to go. Her fellow carvers in New Mexico are always happy to see her arrive with her supply of basswood. Wood is expensive, and freight is very high. Though most pieces are roughed out, there have been some things she has mastered without the benefit of the rough cut. She carved a lifelike pair of wood ducks from a log that was 10 inches in diameter.

    “This eagle was done from salt cedar,” Marthaler says, as she stands beside a natural-looking eagle with a wing span so perfect he looks like he could lift right up and fly away. “This is salt cedar. It was imported in from a Spanish wildfire. It grows in places like the Rio Grande, always along riverbanks or bodies of water. They are a very thirsty tree, and it is said that one large tree can drink up 200 to 600 gallons of water a day. They are a type of very hard willow that someone liked, and the trees were imported from elsewhere, and now they are sucking rivers dry. With water becoming such a priceless commodity, they have become a nuisance tree. The wood was brought in for our carving club, where we had space in an old school built in the ‘30s in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.”

    When she first began carving she was a volunteer driver for those needing medical attention and would sometimes have a long wait. She would bring a small piece to work on while waiting but that has changed now. However, she does spend a great deal of time teaching her grandchildren the art of wood carving.

    “I have taught all my grandkids how to carve, and they have done some very nice things. They start when they are around 8 or 10. It is nice to have that time with each of them and see them develop their own style; it feels good to pass something like carving down to them.” Her oldest grandson began at age 8, and every year he showed a carving at the fair, and every year he went on to the State Fair with his piece. “He is graduating from high school now,” said Marthaler.

    “I like doing small animals and birds, loons, swans, though I have done several large pieces. I have an eagle with a 3-foot wing span. Things that large are hard to transport back to Minnesota, but our club always puts on a show each year, and large pieces are always appreciated, too. I have my biggest project waiting yet this summer. I have had too many irons in the fire, and we were waiting for crops to get in and mud to dry up. There is a large log we need to move to a saw mill before the project can get started. It will be interesting, and I may be able to use the piece as a teaching tool. I have been asked to teach at the senior college classes in Marshall at SMSU, but even though it would be all older adults, there is a problem with bringing in carving tools and sharp knives in a public teaching facility. Since this special project will be done out of doors we could possibly use it as a teaching opportunity, if there are some parents and kids that would like to learn together. We will have to see,” said Marthaler.

    “Our carving club in New Mexico has carving days every Monday and Thursday morning, with about 35 of us. Some are very good, some are better at finer details. It is surprising, but many of the women are especially good at detail work. They seem to pick it up quickly and are so good at it; they seem to be more creative. Maybe it is because they have done other craft work, like painting or stitching or something like that. At one of our club’s shows I showed this piece, which is an old rough-looking cowboy who is walking and he is leading a big bear on a short piece of rope. A man came up to me and said he was a member of the Liars Club, and he wanted to know what the story was behind the old cowboy and bear. I told him it was just an old cowboy bringing home supper. He laughed and was amazed as he told me about a tale that won in a liar contest; it was about an old cowboy prospector that went up the mountain with his mule. One spring he runs into a bear. His mule takes off and runs down the mountain by himself. Everybody sees the mule and figures the old prospector is a goner. A while later the prospector comes down the mountain leading a big bear with a piece of rope and tells everybody he was just bringing supper home. We both had a good laugh over that – the odds of the lie and my carving be called the same thing was really something,” said Marthaler.

    “There are a lot of interesting people in our club. There is one man who was the blacksmith in Osakis. He is an older gentleman, but he doesn’t have one single piece he has carved. He gives every one away. I have done a few dogs. Sometimes they are for someone who lost a dog they loved very much. I have done seven or eight eagles. There is a 3-foot cigar store Indian that is standing in the men’s restroom at a funeral home here in Marshall. The mortician came to me and asked for the Indian. It was fun to do and just knowing where it would be displayed was funny. You will have to ask him for a look at it sometime. Like most things, it takes practice, like learning good penmanship or painting or any other fine art work. It just takes practice. You have to work on one side just a little and turn it over to the other side and do the same amount, otherwise you will never get the same proportions on both sides. I always say you can take more off, but you can’t put any back on. For anyone wanting to start, I would say you do not need a whole starter kit. You need an instruction book, which will have some patterns, one knife and wood cut out or roughed out in the shape the piece will end up in. It also helps to work from a picture of the thing you are carving. But, like I said, everybody’s will look different,” said Marthaler.

    “One of the things I like about wood carving is that it is the type of craft that you can just pick up and you forget all your aches and pains and problems,” said Marthaler.

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