AMHERST - Having taken early retirement from the phone company at the age of 52, Ian McLeod needed to find something to do with his time. Idle hands, as they say, McLeod of Amherst happened into a set of wood carving tools and chisels for Christmas and, as he said, went from there.
“The biggest hurdle for me was not having any artistic training at all in terms of study of anatomy and any drawing experience.” said McLeod of his early days. “It made for a steep learning curve.”
He had the curiosity and the time so McLeod bought some books and “low and behold” he realized he had a talent for woodcarving.
Of course regardless of the early days and his level of natural technique, not all pieces made it out of the house and to a craft show. The first piece, McLeod says, a small block of wood within which he carved a small four-leaf flower still sits in his shop… somewhere. The rest of the early work, McLeod jokes, “went in to help fuel the fires.”
McLeod’s creative process starts as soon as he comes across the materials. Starting with found wood, some on his own and some gifted to him by his two brother-in-laws who have a woodworking shop, McLeod doesn’t have a dictated approach. Rather, he allows the materials to speak for themselves. Sometimes it’s an automatic connection, sometimes inspiration hits after a few runs of the wood through his band saw, when other times it takes a few years for a piece to talk to him.
“I had apiece of wood I kicked around my basement for two years and I kept saying I need to burn it,” he said. “One day I kicked it and it turned a certain way and boom I knew exactly what I could make from it. Three hours later it was face and now it’s on the mantle.”
Once he’s decides on the general idea of the piece, McLeod’s process begins. After 13 years of meticulous work and attention to detail, it’s the faces of his now well-known pieces that continue to remain his most favourite part to create.
“That’s where all the expression is. That’s where the life is. You can have a wonderful piece of work but if the face isn’t right you don’t have anything.”
That’s what draws people in – the expression in the eyes and the face.
Customer and friend Joe MacLean can vouch for the unique nature of the pieces McLeod produces. Struck by the expression on a small figuring at a craft show, MacLean proudly displays his piece in his living room.
“He’s just a perfectionist,” said MacLean. “When he goes to the different craft show, the people are just awed with him and now he has customers that expect to see him at these shows.”
Not one to turn down an opportunity to please a customer, MacLean shares that McLeod takes on a variety of commissioned requests for specific pieces – taking the same amount of care and attention to produce the most unique piece to suit the order.
For instance, when an Amherst shore couple requested a wood carving in one of the white paper birch trees on their property, McLeod took on the challenge noting to take the proper care to ensure that it would last the test of time.
“He went the extra step so the wood wouldn’t split by staining and treating it,” said MacLean. “And it’s still surviving the snow today.”
Attention to detail, not to mention patience, have been lessons learned throughout McLeod’s time spent working on his craft. Working with wood is one thing, but challenging himself further McLeod continues to take on materials ranging from deer horns to egg shells.
“I’m not going to say it’s boredom, but I do like the variety of other materials,” he said. “I enjoy working with wood the most but then I thought, ‘what about deer horns or eggs,’ and started on that.”
With steady hands and the best of tools, McLeod carves delicate eggshells.
“I take a chicken egg, clean the middle out and carve the inside.”
A rewarding process and one that requires a steady hand, though his lesson in patience made stronger with every faint “tick” and then instant pile of eggshells.
Currently McLeod has taken to working with walnuts – carving intricate designs and miniature scenes in the walnut itself as it sits in its half-shell.
“Certainly it’s very therapeutic for him,” said MacLean. “But when he’s got a happy customer he’s really pleased.”