A memoir of the year the author spent restoring fire-damaged carvings, and a meditation on art.
In earlier centuries when readers were struck by the wisdom, utility or beauty of a passage, they would copy it into a commonplace book, a personal compendium of ideas, styles and inspiration. Possibly the same impulse drives Internet memes and Facebook shares, but while reading David Esterly's gorgeous new book, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making," I found myself drawn to the old ways, copying passages longhand with my favorite pen onto actual paper. Such is the book's power that for a mad moment, I convinced myself I absolutely needed to learn calligraphy to make a worthy copy of Esterly's lines.
Although wise and even profound thoughts abound, "The Lost Carving" is a book about making, not just thinking. More accurately, it is about making-and-thinking or, in one of Esterly's favorite Yeats quotations, "the thinking of the body," a phrase that "encompasses the making of art as well as the perceiving of it."
For Esterly, this is not just theory; here is how he describes his encounter with the woodcarvings of Grinling Gibbons, "Britain's unofficial woodcarver laureate": "A tingling in the palms of the hands, a loosening in the solar plexus. I looked and my tongue seemed to be moving over carved ivory, cool and smooth." "I was only an observer," he writes, "but somehow it felt as if I were creating the object I was observing, creating it in the act of seeing it."
Seeing. Feeling. Thinking. Making. While uniting these activities is profoundly satisfying -- sufficiently so to lead Esterly to give up an academic career for a life in woodcarving despite the oft-repeated warning that "carvers are starvers" -- he does not sentimentalize his profession. He depicts the details of discouragement, self-doubt, tedium, frustration and (perhaps inevitably for a restorer of national treasures) politics with the same care he devotes to the hidden edges in his carvings, carefully shaping a nuanced, truthful, rounded representation.
It is impossible to categorize "The Lost Carving." It is a memoir of the year Esterly spent restoring and replacing fire-damaged carvings by Gibbons in Hampton Court Palace (the "lost carving" of the title); it is an intricate description of the process -- mental and physical -- of woodcarving. It is a historical puzzler, a meditation on meaning, even a bit of a commonplace book as Esterly quotes liberally from Yeats and Blake. And it is, implicitly and explicitly, a critique of the current artistic ethic that since "art is ideas," hiring someone else to do the actual making preserves the artist's "purity."
But none of these depictions do justice to "The Lost Carving." Above all, it is a work of beauty, so sublimely crafted that reading it, I felt like I was making it, even if all I did was copy lines into my new commonplace book. When an artist's "embroiled instinctive creating is embodied in a work," "the work of art and the work of art transport you to the same, charmed place." "You can know Hamlet as Shakespeare knew Hamlet. Become Mozart for a while. Play your air guitar to Jimi Hendrix, for that matter." Or read this book and make woodcarvings of aching loveliness.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.