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Carving class teaches Japanese art of embracing flaws

The art of spoon-carving at Farwell Mill
By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 04, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Students in the Rusted Pulchritude spoon-carving workshop at Farwell Mill Feb. 22 shape wood with hand tools.

Thorndike — Deirdre McGrath and Aaron Margolis, the duo behind Rusted Pulchritude, only use hand tools and discarded wood to produce their handmade utensils, bowls and sculptures. They taught a workshop on spoon-carving at the Thorndike Folk School, located at the Farwell Mill, Feb. 22.

Using the Japanese design aesthetic of working with imperfect materials, embracing the imperfection in the object to create a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of art that is rustic yet functional, students left the session with a completed, usable spoon.

McGrath said the pair first moved to the Blue Hill area nine years ago. “We bounced around a bit,” she said. It wasn’t until 2016 that they began to focus on their current efforts and put down some roots.

The couple fixed up a “poorly framed barn” in Ellsworth and carved out a work and living space where they made their studio. “It’s our combo space,” she said. They are also co-owners of SevenArts Local Artisan Gallery at 192 Main St., Ellsworth, where they display and sell their wares along with six other local artisans.

The freshly cut or “green” timber they use from salvaged trees, she said, is much softer and easier to work with. The amount of energy used to harvest, transport and process the wood is much less, too.

“We were inspired by green woodworking,” she said. “It involves no power tools, no loud noises and is very quiet. It’s a nice sound, as opposed to using reclaimed wood. You hear a lot of noise hitting nails.”

The couple travels to 15 to 20 shows a year, giving demonstrations that range from multi-day intensives to one-time workshops, “depending on how much room we have in the car,” McGrath said. They also teach a wood shop course at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and at the Community School on Mount Desert Island for kids 12 and up.

“We work our way up using small hand tools,” she said, “starting with a block of birch, which is easy to cut, and start with a bowl gouge. Even if you blow through the bottom of the bowl, you are still building skill, and you build up from there. It’s a rewarding feeling,” for kids and teacher alike, McGrath said.

Originally from Westchester County in New York, Margolis worked with his father as a house carpenter and McGrath studied printmaking. They started working with reclaimed wood because they lived in an urban area and, “that’s what ended up on the streets,” she said.

When the Mamaroneck train station underwent renovations, she said, they scored big pieces of lumber. “It was stuff that would end up getting burned or thrown in a landfill,” McGrath said.

In Maine, much of their wood comes from storm-damaged trees. “It’s all Maine species,” she said. “It restricts us from importing (non-native) wood.” They use birch, apple wood and others. “Today it's mostly poplar,” she said. “Maine-sourced wood is important to us. It means no trees are at risk and we are not using any trees from the rainforest.”

Margolis joked that one becomes an artist after all else fails. Ironically, earlier this year, he received The Belvedere Craft Maine Artist Fellowship award from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The merit-based award recognized Margolis for his artistic excellence.

The back lumber room at the Farwell Mill was toasty on this chilly Saturday afternoon, with a large wood stove in the corner cranking out heat in waves. A dozen woodworking students quietly whittled, gouged and shaped their spoons in the six-hour workshop, stopping to chat with each other and with their instructors, and to eat a locally prepared lunch.

Link Harjung, a member of the Farwell Project board, said the workshop was a success, with a full class and nine people on a waiting list. It is a bit of a new direction for the Folk School, he said, incorporating manual skills where anyone can create a craft.

“We thought it would be a good fit for the area,” Harjung said, “It gives people a chance to learn a bit of the trade. When you see Aaron and Deirdre, it’s inspiring.”

More hands-on workshops and storytelling events are planned for the mill, along with the opening of Boxcar Books, a DIY bookstore owned by Harjung that is adjacent to the mill.

A one-day tree-to-basket workshop is scheduled for March 7 with Thorndike basket maker C. P. Woodman. Participants will be guided through the process of turning fresh-cut willow branches into baskets. The event cost is on a sliding scale of $35-$60, and begins at 11 a.m. The workshop includes a farm-to-table lunch at 1 p.m., and ends at 5 p.m. with completed projects.

Thorndike Folk School offers workshops in local historic handcrafts and is based at the former Farwell Mill in Thorndike Village.

For more information on Rusted Pulchritude or the Thorndike Folk School, visit rustedpulchritude.com/, thorndikemill.org/.

Deirdre McGrath, right, talks with a woodworking student at the workshop Feb. 22 at Farwell Mill. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Aaron Margolis, left, works alongside a student at the spoon carving workshop Feb. 22 at the Farwell Mill. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
A student uses a handmade bench vice at the spoon-carving workshop Feb. 22 at Farwell Mill. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Tools of the trade are displayed at the wood-carving workshop Feb. 22 at Farwell Mill. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Lunchtime at the spoon-carving workshop Feb. 22 at Farwell Mill. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
(Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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