A longtime wood carver finds peace in the wood
By BY DIANNA WRAY
March 24, 2011 at 5:04 p.m.
Updated March 23, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.
Lem Smith digs his razor-sharp tools, pulling the grinning features of a wooden Santa Claus from what was once a dense block of blond wood.
Smith has been carving wooden figures since his father gave him his first pocket knife when he was 8 years old because Smith was constantly begging to borrow his.
"In those days, you made your own toys. It was just what you did. Whatever you thought up, you could do, if you could do it," Smith said, smiling.
Smith was born in 1930 and grew up the son of a farm laborer in Iowa in the midst of the Great Depression.
There wasn't a lot of money for toys, so the children made their own, fashioning play things out of corn husks, discarded bits of rubbish and wood.
They didn't have television back then, and Smith's family didn't even have a radio until the start of World War II, he said.
"All of the boys had pocket knives. We didn't fight with them. We whittled, we carved," Smith said.
His father gave Smith his own pocket knife, a small silver one identical to the one his father carried.
"It was dull when I got it, but I worked on it, sharpened it and pretty soon I was making things with it," Smith said
As he grew up, working as a welder and machinist at different refineries around the country, he kept up his habit of whittling and carving, learning about the art through trial and error.
He learned what kind of wood to look for, the kinds of tools he needed to use.
Holding a ball and chain he whittled and carved from a scrap of redwood in 1953, he noted that redwood is bad for carving because the material is so soft and pulpy it's difficult to shape.
He has used basswood from Linden trees for years.
"This basswood is the best stuff to use, because it doesn't split, it doesn't fade and it holds detail," Smith said. "I've seen it in Russia. This is the stuff they put gold leaf on to trim the tsar's palaces. Catherine the Great's palace was even burned down, but this kind of wood didn't show any signs of that."
He started out with a single razor-sharp wood carving tool to help him shape his creations, but amassed a tray of tools over the years, learning the capabilities of each tool the way a violinist learns to stroke and dig different tones and emotions from his violin.
Wood carving remained a hobby until Smith retired and moved with his wife, Mary Jo, to her family ranch in Victoria.
He started whittling more and more as they settled in running the ranch and enjoying retirement.
During a visit to Colorado Springs, he wandered into a wood carving museum. Inspired by what he saw, he picked up a pattern on carving cowboys, cartoonish ones reminiscent of the Disney version of Pecos Bill.
He began carving in earnest then, attending classes and workshops, eager to learn the art.
Soon he advanced to other things, trying his hand at different animals and designing his own patterns based on photographs that caught his eye.
"The animals are challenging because there are so many details to get right," Smith said.
He turned the wooden figure of a deer in his hands, showing the details of the body, how the muscles needed to flex in the right places over the outline of the figure to make it seem real.
He has to study each figure carefully before designing a pattern that will turn the image into a three-dimensional object of art.
While he enjoys the challenge of animals, his favorite things to carve are Santa Clauses.
He started making them a few years ago, and soon filled the house with images of Santa.
Every morning, he wakes up, and spends a couple of hours crafting Santa Clauses. Mary Jo paints the figures, and the couple sell them at craft shows.
The money he makes from the sales allows him to buy more basswood to whittle, he said.
Over the years, his skills have grown to the point that Smith has also become a teacher, offering wood carving workshops in Victoria and around the country.
Still, the main thing he likes about wood carving is how it makes him feel.
Sitting in his shop, with the pulpy smell of wood all around him, he looks suddenly peaceful as his large, capable-looking hands wield the tools and dig into the wood, forgetting everything else.
"It's very relaxing. You can be all frustrated about something - there's always something to be frustrated about - and then you take up the wood and start carving, and suddenly all of that's gone, just gone away," Smith said.