To you it’s a piece of wood, but to David Esterly, it’s a blank slate for foliage, musical instruments, seashells and even iPods. Esterly, 68, has spent nearly 40 years taking limewood and creating out of it spectacular carvings that until recently graced only homes and private offices. Now his work is returning to Oneida County where it first took form in his Barneveld studio.
Utica’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute will display The Art of Subtraction: Carvings by David Esterly through March 10. Kicking off the exhibit this weekend, Esterly presides over a reading reception and book signing on Saturday, Feb. 2, 4 to 7 p.m. He’s reading from his book The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making (Viking Adult, New York City; 228 pages; $27.95/hardcover).
The book recounts the time he returned to London in response to a fire that destroyed a limewood carving by the original limewood carver, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). “There was a terrible fire in 1986, and one of Gibbons’ carvings was completely destroyed,” said Esterly. “I went over there and replaced the carving, and it’s a memoir of the year I spent there.”
Esterly’s first book, Grinling Gibbons & the Art of Carving, being reissued in March by Abrams Books, recounts Gibbons’ work and his influence over decorative arts. They certainly changed Esterly’s life. “I was studying in England at the time and I wandered into a church in London and saw a Gibbons carving and had a conversion, not religious, but professional,” he related. “Originally I thought my interest was an academic one, and I thought I should write a book on Gibbons.
“But you can’t understand how the style developed until you understand the tools and wood. When I encountered my first piece of limewood instantly the genie came out of the bottle and I realized I wanted to carve and not write about carving. So I retired to a cottage in Sussex where I taught myself to do this kind of work over a period of eight years, though I’m still learning. Eventually I moved back.”
The limewood carvings are quite intricate, even delicate, works of art. The detail evident in the work would lead you to believe it’s made of porcelain, or even clay. That it’s from a plank of wood native to England makes them even more astonishing. MWPAI will be displaying about 20 of Esterly’s carvings, some quite small and grouped as a set of elements, and others four feet long by a foot wide.
“They’re all different sizes,” Esterly explained. “Even the larger pieces have a lot of detail.” The limewood Esterly uses is difficult to procure, he said. “I import the wood at great expense and trouble from England; it’s really a wonderful wood. I get it in bulk, but it’s difficult to import because usually U.S. Customs does not allow wood in from other countries that is not kiln-dried because it can carry pests. But since kiln drying destroys special carving properties, I have to obtain a special permit. I have it fumigated when it arrives; it’s a terrible pain in the neck but something I have to go through.”
All of Esterly’s work is on commission. “I don’t own any of my own carving,” he said. “As soon as it’s finished it goes out the door. Usually I hand-deliver it.”
For this exhibit, Esterly has borrowed back his work. It’s already been curated and displayed at W.M. Brady & Co., an art gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Laura Bennett is the director of the gallery. His work ended up there because the gallery owner saw one of Esterly’s carvings at a friend’s house.
“David had been thinking about having an exhibition in New York and was trying to find a gallery that he thought would be a good fit,” Bennett explained. “Very kindly this mutual couple put us together. We had 17 carvings in our gallery. It was absolutely over-the-top, enthusiastic feedback. We’ve almost never had such a positive response, especially from a contemporary show. There was a piece about it on NPR, and then two articles within one week in The Wall Street Journal.”
And now the Syracuse New Times is writing about Esterly’s work, so how about that? With these remarkable carvings less than an hour’s drive away, plan a visit to Utica to check out The Art of Subtraction. It may be your only chance to see these unusual and rare artworks in a grand setting.
“I thought, as long as it was already together in New York, it would be terrific to have the exhibit come to my home museum,” he says. “It’s a great honor to be at Munson-Williams. It’s a huge pleasure for me because I’ll be able to drop in and see my carvings. I hope people will like them.”
The Art of Subtraction remains on display through March 10 at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, 310 Genesee St., Utica. Saturday’s book signing and the exhibit are free. The museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 797-0000 or visit mwpai.org.