Carving the Acanthus Leaf
By Mary May
You can download a pdf sample of the book here.
Learning to carve the acanthus leaf is – for carvers – like a pianist learning a Chopin étude, a young oil painter studying the genius of Rembrandt or an aspiring furniture maker learning to cut dovetails by hand.
For carvers, especially those who focus on Classical Western ornament, there comes a time they will inevitably encounter the acanthus leaf, learn it, master it and finally incorporate it into their own designs.
“Carving the Acanthus Leaf” by Mary May is a deep exploration into this iconic leaf, which has been a cornerstone of Western ornamentation for thousands of years. May, a professional carver and instructor, starts her book at the beginning. She covers carving tools and sharpening with the efficiency of someone who has taught for years. Then she plunges the reader directly into the work.
It begins with a simple leaf that requires just a few tools. The book then progresses through 13 variations of leaves up to the highly ornate Renaissance and Rococo forms. Each lesson builds on the earlier ones as the complexity slowly increases.
One remarkable aspect of the book is how May has structured each chapter. Each chapter begins with a short discussion of how this particular leaf appears in architecture or the decorative arts, with photos May has taken from her travels around the world. Then you learn how to draw the leaf from scratch. Though you are provided with a full-size or scaled drawing of each leaf, May insists that drawing the leaf makes it easier to carve it. Each step of the drawing process is illustrated in detail.
As May explains how to carve the leaf, she augments each step with multiple photos and illustrations that show where and how each tool should move through the work. The result is that each leaf can have as many as 100 photos and illustrations of each step of the carving process.
In addition to the intense instruction, May also provides a short essay between every chapter that illustrates her journey from a young pumpkin carver to the world-renowned carver she is today. The overall effect is like apprenticing with a master carver, with both the demanding instruction and the personal experiences that make woodworking such a rich craft.
“Carving the Acanthus Leaf” is manufactured to survive many hours of use in the shop. The heavy paper is both glued and sewn so the book will lie flat on your benchtop without the pages coming loose. The pages are protected by cloth-covered hardboards and a tear-resistant dust jacket to protect its contents. This is a permanent book – produced and printed entirely in the United States.
About the Author
Perhaps the best way to describe Mary May, author of “Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” is to describe another woman – Grace. Grace began as an 8” x 10” x 21” block of mahogany, and emerged not with plan or intent, but with patience, skill and curiosity.
On her blog, May wrote about the process of carving Grace without referring to a model – a process called “direct” carving. “A woman was in there somewhere,” she wrote. “I just needed to begin chipping the wood away and find out where and who she was.”
And so it is with Mary May herself. A carver was inside her, always – that’s evident in her childhood stories of three-dimensional play and carved zucchini dolls. But just as May handled Grace, she has worked her way through life not with a grinder, but rather slowly, with a mallet and chisel. “Without having a specific design, how do you know what is ‘waste’ wood, anyway?” she writes when talking about carving Grace. “This process of slowly chipping away helped me to discover the design as I carved.”
And so it is with May’s life. Her life experiences have allowed herself to live three-dimensionally. In fact, her work these days is split in thirds – carving, teaching and creating online videos. And what has emerged is a well-respected career that has allowed her to fill her days doing exactly what she loves.
Read more about Mary May in our full profile.