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Art: Handy Man

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

It is January, and David Calvo’s studio is quiet, just as he prefers at this time of year. The two craftsmen he employs are not working on any wood-carving, bronze-sculpting, or furniture-making projects. Instead, Calvo has given them the month off, as he does every January. "I have to have time alone to design. I need that silence," says the 52-year-old artist. "I can dream about [new ideas] if I’m not being asked how to cut a joint."

Calvo’s studio, in Gloucester, Mass., is crowded with proof of his progress. Here and there lie line drawings of pipe organs, part of a project for the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (Calvo has been asked to design and ornament the organs’ cases.) Near his worktable hangs a mock-up of a wooden wall clock that he will begin crafting this summer. He picks up a drawing of a 6-by-9-foot nature scene that he will carve for the space above a Maine client’s fireplace and explains the imagery. "The client loves water, fishing, and moose," he says, pointing to the river, the leaping fish, and the moose he has sketched. The four mountains he included in the background represent the four members of the client’s family.

Calvo’s past projects have been equally varied. He has carved ornaments for church interiors, crafted commemorative plaques for colleges, and refurbished Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, re-creating architectural flourishes from white oak to replace those that had vanished over the years. "I run the gamut between very serious [things] that can go before the historic committee," Calvo says, "and at the other extreme, I can be very whimsical."

An example of his whimsy is a recently finished, 8½-foot-long bronze sculpture of a humpback whale. "A humpback has bumps all over it," Calvo says, referring to the tubercles that appear on the outside of a whale’s mouth. "I took the bumps and turned them into Braille." The tubercles on his humpback’s upper jaw spell the phrase "love life," while those on the lower jaw say "be majestic." He says he settled on the latter because "being majestic is intrinsic to the spirit of a whale," and he sees the former as "an overriding theme that should be woven into everyone’s life in one way or another." His patron, a local restaurant owner, does not know about the Braille messages; Calvo intends them as pleasant surprises.

Calvo started carving wood in 1977 while studying for his philosophy degree at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "Philosophy is heady and abstract," he says, "and I needed something to balance it out." After completing his college education, he apprenticed as a wood-carver in the Boston area and later worked alongside a pair of elderly, Italian-born artisans who taught him how to sculpt clay models for bronzes and helped him refine his woodworking skills. In 1991, he opened Calvo Studio. Usually he has at least two projects under way at any given time, and most of them require three to 12 months to complete.

Calvo says his trades are complementary, not incongruous. Wood carving demands that he shave away what he does not need, and sculpting a clay model for a bronze calls for him to add clay to the form until he realizes his vision. "With clay, I work from the inside out," he explains, "and with wood, I work from the outside in. It allows me to study beauty from both ends."

Calvo Studio, 978.283.0231, www.calvostudio.com

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Courtesy of Shakespeare and Company - Paul Foster Books - the NY Antiquarian Book Fair
Photo courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery, New York; Li Hongbo