VINELAND – Employing a measured carving technique, Vineland High School art student Kelvin Ramirez watched his vision slowly emerge from within a block of lindenwood.
He’s mastered three cuts — stop, shave and scoop —to add subtle dimensional changes that bring the work to life.
It’s a slow and steady process that requires patience.
“It’s like clay where you are taking something away,” the 18-year-old senior said. Unlike clay, wood can be unforgiving — what is removed cannot easily be restored. “I’m more careful.”
About 20 students are learning new skills from Mark Bair, the artist in residency at VHS during the “Carving Out Our Heritage” project. Bair, based at his studio in Audubon, also teaches his craft at Tuckerton Seaport.
“It’s more of a forgotten art, but it is still art,” Ramirez said.
This is the third year VHS has partnered with Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center for an Arts in Education Initiative. After focusing on dance and glass art, students are now celebrating cultural diversity through folk art.
Each student began with the same 2-by-2-by-4-inch block of wood. Before picking up carving knives, the teens were tasked with coming up with figurine that reflected their unique family history and culture. They could select a person or come up with a composite.
“It’s about your heritage,” Ramirez said. “It has to be personal.”
They drew front and side views of their vision on tag stock, which become the template for the 3-D image. Bair took the pieces to his studio where he used a band saw to cut the general shape to help get the students started.
To reflect his family’s roots in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ramirez paid tribute to the Día de los Muertos celebration.
“It’s a Day of the Dead cowboy,” he said, running his finger over the work in progress.
Across the classroom, Seyoni Smith, 17, guided her blade using the steady pressure of her thumb to carve the curves of a female form.
Her family tree features a wide variety of branches — Hispanic, Indian, African, German and Polish.
“I think I’m Irish too,” she added.
Smith planned to incorporate her ancestry into the figure with small details in the clothing.
When she started, Smith admitted to nerves.
“I didn’t want to cut myself,” Smith said.
As she got more comfortable, she gained confidence and the desktop pile of shavings grew.
“It’s relaxing for me, like therapy,” Smith said.
It turns out she’s a natural, Bair said, commending Smith’s technique while challenging her with suggestions on how to proceed.
It’s a learning process for teacher Jennie Martorano, who is carving her grandfather Miguel Perez, a barber from Cuba who set up a barber shop in New York City before he retired to Vineland.
To help jog her memory, she looked to a small black and white photo of her grandfather in his white jacket at work.
Martorano was not well-acquainted with wood carving and is learning alongside her students. Together they researched the traditional art form and watched instructional YouTube videos to prepare.
“This is totally new,” she said. “We are figuring it out.”
Martorano was inspired by the project that taps into the diversity of her students’ personal histories.
The next step for the student artists is constructing a meeting house where all their figurines will assemble. The art piece, which will be displayed at the district’s administrative offices, will symbolize that all are equal and each bring something special to the table.
Bair hopes he is inspiring a new generation of wood carving artists.
“You just have to go with it,” he told his students. “It’s folk art, not fine art.”
Deborah M. Marko: @dmarko_dj; 856-563-5256; email@example.com