“You’re a wood carver? We need a wood carver!”
That was the reaction Merv Robertson received from an artisan the first time he visited Crawford Bay. Five years later, he has a workshop and gallery in the East Shore hamlet, and couldn’t be happier.
He’s carved elsewhere — central Alberta, the Yukon, the B.C. Coast — but, as artisans and visitors alike already know, the artistic vibe in the area was just what he needed.
“This is the best location I’ve ever been in for what I do,” he said. “It’s my dream come true.”
The rural location was also a big draw, as carving can be a noisy process.
“Neighbours aren’t really conducive to carving,” his wife, Donna, said with a laugh.
The work of over a dozen other artists — including Donna, who sketches portraits and carves magic wands — is also displayed in the gallery, including Creston wildlife photographer Brent Wellander and East Shore oil painter Garth Low.
Each high-quality piece complements Robertson’s work well — his carving is smooth and flowing, rather than the rustic, squared look often expected from chainsaw carving. Of course, that’s not to say his work isn’t without charm — a selection of faces, including John Lennon’s, about six inches high lends a touch of whimsy. And they’re popular, too.
“I can’t make enough,” he said.
Robertson hasn’t always been a carver, but got his artistic start when his parents put him in painting lessons as a young teenager.
“That’s the only training I ever had,” he said.
His folks later bought him a set of chisels, but carving didn’t become a passion until he began building log houses.
“I realized what a chainsaw could do, and away I went,” Robertson said.
He learned on his own, preferring to be self-taught rather than taking lessons.
“You’re not limited,” he said. “No one says, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ ”
With no restrictions, Robertson quickly developed a strong passion for carving — a necessity for anyone attempting the time-consuming art.
“It’s just something you have to do,” he said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t do it because it takes too long.”
A photo of a favourite, which was bought by a U.S. customer, hangs proudly on the wall. Called Slipping through the Cracks, it was carved from a cracked piece of wood and depicts a man who appears to be climbing through the wall.
When inspiration for Slipping first struck Robertson, he was home alone and the neighbour was out, so he had no one to share his excitement with.
“I was laughing and crying at the same time,” said Robertson. “I was sitting on the lawn just shaking.”
Inspiration doesn’t always strike so suddenly, though. Larger pieces develop as Robertson works, cutting knot and cracks from the wood.
“It’s pretty good, and then, bam! There it is,” he said.
One of his biggest pieces, MythConception, was carved from an 800-year-old piece of wood, and depicts Eve next to a tree picking fruit. But not just any fruit — a leaf hanging over the apple looked like North America, so after a bit of additional carving, Eve is now picking Earth.
That carving is about seven feet high, and is an eye-catching, integral part of the gallery, so much so that its price is set at $225,000. It may take time to sell, but if it does?
“I’ll have time and space to make another one,” said Roberston.
And if he stumbles across the right piece of wood, that just might happen, anyway.
“When I’m in a place along the lakeshore, I’m looking for ‘that’ piece of wood always,” he said.
Once he’s finished with the piece, it could end up pretty much anywhere — Robertson’s art can be found, among other places, in South Africa and Holland. And having a customer enjoy it makes all the hard work worth it.
“I’m doing what I love to do,” Robertson said. “You get in the zone and time just goes.”