The City Magazine Since 1975

Chiseling Perfection

January 2019
Chiseling Perfection
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John’s Islander Mary May has carved out her dream career

Mary May has been known to lose herself for hours sculpting, shaping, and dreaming up sheer magnificence from solid blocks of wood and, occasionally, stone. The Wisconsin native moved to Charleston some 20 years ago, and the fruits (and leaves) of her labor can be found in public spaces—the wooden signs at the Dock Street Theatre, for example, and slate gravestones at the Huguenot Church—as well as private homes all over town.

A decade ago, the self-avowed hermit found a genuine love for teaching. May now conducts workshops as far away as Europe (she’s leading a course at the American College of the Building Arts from January 14 to 18) and runs Mary May’s Online School of Traditional Woodcarving. Last fall, she released Carving the Acanthus Leaf (Lost Art Press), unlocking the trade secrets of the scrolled motif that has beguiled woodcarvers since the days of ancient Greece. Here, she fills us in:

Mary May created models (above left) to show the process of carving an acanthus leaf. She carved details into the cabriole leg of a Philadelphia highboy built by Danny Hinson.

Carving out a future: Even as a child, I was fascinated by the three-dimensional. When our garden was overgrown, I’d carve faces into the zucchinis. I built a dollhouse with my dad when I was 10. He showed me how to use the drill and handsaw, and I loved getting lost in it.

The defining moment: While doing a college study abroad course, I fell in love with the exterior and interior carvings in Europe. Back home, I found a very traditional Greek master carver who spent three years teaching me the old-world techniques. Then I studied at City & Guilds college in London.

Home, where the hearth is: My husband, Stephen, and I met because of a fireplace I carved with an elaborate lion’s head around the center. He saw it and wanted to meet me. Six months later we were married.

Recent work: I finished about a year’s worth of work on a fireplace for a house on Legare. The original had been removed around 1900. Richard Marks and his team went through layers of paint looking for evidence of what was originally there and found a faint scroll design. We visited nearby houses with original fireplaces and aimed to match the integrity of their designs.

Intriguing pieces from May’s past carving projects fill her John’s Island studio, including resin castings (far left and top) from a reproduction mantelpiece she created for a historic Legare Street home.

Teaching online: I have students all over the world. Many are career furniture-makers who want to embellish their furniture, but others are hobby carvers just starting out.

The next challenge: There’s a potential job that involves carving of the type of 17th-century Brit Grinling Gibbons. His work, which is often four or five inches deep, is jaw-dropping to the point of “Can that even be done?”