The Lost Carving

A Journey to the Heart of Making

By David Esterly

Viking. 288 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Rita Giordano


Life can change in an instant.

One day in the 1970s, a young David Esterly was walking along Piccadilly by St. James Church with Marietta, the woman who would become his wife. They were on their way to Marietta's first meeting with his parents when she impulsively blurted out, "Let's go see Grinling Gibbons!"

Esterly knew nothing of the 17th-century limewood master carver, but he would have followed Marietta anywhere, so he went with her into St. James and approached the altar.

"Floating on the reredos, the wall behind the altar, was a shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me. It seemed one of the wonders of the world. The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe."

Esterly, a scholar of poetry and philosophy and sometime worker on box cars, beer trucks, and moving vans, would go on to teach himself carving, eventually becoming a master in the style of the man whose work so inspired him.

So is Esterly's new memoir, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, a book about this increasingly rare art? Nominally yes, but it is so much more.

One could frankly not care less about carving and still be absolutely in thrall to the lushness of Esterly's language, his passion for creation, his reverence for the physical act of work. The Lost Carving is a study in the marvel - both the pain and the joys - of doing a thing well.

Esterly's chosen thing is carving, although lucky for us he hasn't relinquished the pen, and the backbone of his book was the year he spent re-creating a Gibbons carving destroyed in a 1986 fire at the Hampton Court Palace in England.

It is quite a task - Gibbons' work literally changed Esterly's life - and it takes the modern-day carver on a journey of many twists and turns.

The Lost Carving is a detective story, with Esterly trying to figure how Gibbons worked, experimenting with how Gibbons achieved certain effects and, in some ways, who Gibbons really was as a person. Along the way, he runs up against bureaucrats who frustrate his efforts to make Gibbons better known - including one official who thought that a British carver, rather than the American Esterly, should have been hired to replace part of a Gibbons carving destroyed in a fire.

The book is also the story of Esterly's life as an artist and a man - the choices made, the interventions of fate, and the serendipities. His is a hungry mind, an open heart, and a searching eye - and, again, the guy knows how to turn a phase.

Take this from his recollection of the start of the Hampton Court work:

"History isn't made with innocent hands, and wood carvings aren't, either. The lovely novelty of the carving motion at Hampton Court that first day included an awareness of the violence of the roughing-out process."

He expounds the necessary "ruthlessness" of his craft on its wooden host, the felled and slain tree. So, he asks, maybe the carving "is an apology to the tree? No. You can't apologize or atone. A carving doesn't expiate anything. But good limewood is a rich bounty, the bright gold of the forest, and it behooves you not to squander it."

Ultimately, and at its core, Esterly's memoir is a meditation: on labor, on effort, on the search for meaning, on beauty, on the choices we make in life and in art that shape what we do and who we become. And Esterly does it without a trace of pretension or self-importance.

No doubt, the artists among us will find much to cherish in The Lost Carving. But Esterly approaches life much the way he approaches his beloved wood: with reverence, passion, and respect, but also with a sense of delight.

Esterly is as much an original as his intricate carvings, and his book is one to savor.

Contact Rita Giordano at 610-313-8232, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.