Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nora Hall is a Human Treasure

Nora Hall is an 87 year old third generation carver originally from Amsterdam, now living in Michigan. She learned to carve in the Classical European style from her father and has been carving for around 70 years. I just returned from three days of instruction with her. I am a lucky guy.

I discovered Nora on the web a couple of years ago. On her web site she offered her instructional videos for sale or for download. The cost to download for a thirty day period was ridiculously inexpensive, a practice she has since discontinued, understandably. The information on her video was so profoundly helpful that it radically improved my carving and reduced the time I spent on a project. Better carvings in less time. What was most interesting about her advice was that it was in direct contradiction to the instruction of my first carving teacher. I had to ask...what else did I learn from him that was fostering bad habits? Plenty, it turns out.

Learning to carve, it turns out, is a lot like learning a golf swing. It's very hard to explain, involves complex and elusive combinations of muscles and movements, and requires seemingly endless repetition to drill into your muscle memory. Nora reduces the process to some simple basic components that are fairly easy to grasp. Anchor the wrist of the hand holding the gouge. I had been anchoring at the forearm. Make small controlled shallow strokes. I had been gouging out the wood in wide passing strokes. I thought that's why they called it a gouge. And never..... NEVER MAKE A STOP CUT. A stop cut involves stabbing the end of the gouge straight into the grain of the wood, a technique I was introduced to by my first teacher, who remains unnamed.

I came to the three day class a bit cocky. I've been carving a while. I'm no master but nor am I a beginner. I was quickly humbled by the first simple exercise she gave us, a very basic flower. Using Nora's unfamiliar methods I struggled with it like a father's first diaper change. The movements were awkward and unfamiliar and my flower didn't look any more advanced than anyone else's. The diaper change metaphor was apt on so many levels. It became clear that the weekend was to be an exercise in re-training my muscle memory and not one of producing a carving of any consequence.

Nora is hands on. She pins your wrist to the bench with her forefinger to emphasize the weight that should be anchored there.. down into the bench. She picks up your gouge and in a few deft strokes erases your last two hour's progress and shows you a better way. She stresses the importance of carving right and left handed. She shows you how when she pushes with her right hand she grasps the end of the gouge but when she pushes with the left, she pushes with an open palm. When you try this out you notice the difference.

She tells stories of getting through the war in Holland, of people tearing up the timber cribbing that supported the trolley line for firewood. She tells about working in her father's shop as a young girl, about how she took on a project her father declined for a furniture maker who had 400 dining sets with six chairs each that needed carved backs. The carving was very simple... but do the freakin math!

I am not going to have stories of that caliber to tell younger people when I'm 87 and I'm afraid we're just not making people like Nora Hall anymore.

Thank you for staying with me for this. I have one last thing, if you'll bear with me. Look at this photo. Look at the strength in this woman's hands. What's less apparent, but far more profound is the knowledge contained therein. I cannot tell you how awed I am by that.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gerry,
    I just read your post about Nora Hall. It certainly brought back some memories for me as a 20something guy who happened to find her by a stroke of luck when she lived in California in Manhattan Beach back in the 80's. I was lucky enough to go to her home once a week for about 6 months. Just like you described, she would take what you would take hours to do, often overworked and redo it in a few deft strokes of her strong hands. Often as not, it was a coffee klatch as well as class with food and good coffee taking center stage. Most of the group I was with was much closer to her age, some of them also Dutch. I learned a lot and every time I get out my carving tools, many of which I bought from her, I remember her fondly.
    Dave V