Amid shavings and woodchips in a Langley studio, the shape of a bird emerges from a found piece of spalted birch. Under the careful hand of Langley artist Grant McMillan, the carving—a gift for his wife—will take shape and come to life.
What began 16 years ago with a birthday gift from his dad—two carving knives and a gouge—has become a passion for the father of three. “It really just took off from there,” says McMillan, who has been carving ever since.
While McMillan is carving his current project for love, much of his work is commissioned. He recently carved a family crest for a client in Prince George. The intricate work took about 25 hours to complete. “The family is Scottish and wanted to have that theme in their crest,” he says, “so I suggested we use a Celtic knot around it.” The finished piece earned McMillan a blue ribbon at the recent The Art of the Carver art show in Chilliwack.
The show, which featured carvings from dozens of local artists, was opened by the city’s Mayor, who, McMillan says, commented that carving has come a long way from “sittin’ on the back porch whittlin’ ” to the incredible art forms displayed at the show. “People have a stereotype of carvers being homey or back-woodsy,” McMillan says, “but that’s not who we are.”
Indeed. A member of the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers Club, McMillan has seen a dramatic interest in carving in the past three years. Not only are there more artists, but more people want to own these tactile treasures. “I want people to handle my carvings,” he says, “to turn them over and discover something unique and surprising.”
With that goal in mind, McMillan—whose favourite piece is “usually the one I’m working on”—chooses different wood for different carvings. He likes birch, a softer version of hardwood, for its consistent grain that allows the details to show through. Red and yellow cedar, often used by First Nations carvers, have distinct traits: red is soft and fragrant, while yellow is hard and fine-grained. Butternut, which is commonly found in the United States—and which McMillan chose for the family crest carving—is similar to oak.
Sometimes, because of its unique shape, a piece of found wood—like the birch piece he’s currently working on—directs his carving. But more often, he finds the right wood for a particular project he has in mind. “I carve because I love the look and feel of wood,” he says. “I love how a knife or gouge cuts through wood and leaves a unique shape behind.”
As McMillan works on the spalted—so-called for the fungus that causes different and beautiful patterns in rotting wood—birch, he says that although he knows it’s a bird, this is one of those rare carvings that will be revealed as he goes. “I’m always looking for that ‘aha moment’ in the wood.”
Check out McMillan’s blog at http://grantmcmillan.wordpress.com.