Meet a Couple of Wood Carvers – Emphasis on ‘Couple’

By Ted Boothroyd

Wood carving is usually seen as a solitary activity. But not always, as Alma and Walter Bidlake of Yoho Lake near Fredericton can readily demonstrate. Their studio is a two-seater, with two sets of power-carving tools ready on the bench and two distinct carving projects on the go.

A recent visit with the Bidlakes provided details of their unusual approach to the popular craft. With samples of their work decorating the walls and presenting themselves on various horizontal surfaces of their house, the husband-and-wife pair have lots to show for their time and effort.

A half-size loon, Alma’s first carving, occupies an appropriate spot by the picture window overlooking the lake. It dates from 2011. High up on an adjacent wall sit Walter’s first endeavours from a year later, two green-winged teals carved simultaneously. And nearby are other winged creatures of a pleasing variety, from song-birds to game-birds to raptors.

But we can’t be fooled. They do non-birds too. “I enjoy doing other pieces even more than I do birds,” Walter insisted, and as though to prove his words, a sculpture of Santa and Rudolf rubbing red noses sits freshly painted on his half of the workbench. On a shelf on Alma’s side, awaiting her attention, stands a rough cut of a moose, although at this point its resemblance is only a vague one. It won’t be the first moose she’ll have done.

Although they agree on such key elements as the importance of texturing and the challenges of painting, they have different ideas about what constitutes a successful carving. For Alma, it’s strictly personal, and not easily explained. “If I like it when it’s completed, then it’s a success,” she said. “Sometimes I really want to like it, but I just don’t.” She pointed to a fine-looking innocent robin by the staircase. “That robin, for example. I don’t know why, but I don’t like it.” Apparently she doesn’t even like it enough to to give it away.

In Walter’s case, success is more concretely linked to his intent for the piece. “A carving should tell a story, like any good picture. If I can look at it and see the story behind it, it’s successful. I try to capture that split second in time when something significant is happening.” But with a laugh he also pointed out that judges in carving competitions don’t always agree about the exact story being portrayed.

That observation brought out further differences between the two. Alma has a more laid back approach to her craft, usually carving no more than two hours at a stretch, with no compulsion to show off the results. Walter is more driven, admitting not only that he can carve for hours on end without noticing the passage of time, but that he likes to present his work in public. Therefore it’s no surprise that he has had significant success at the annual New Brunswick Wood Carving Competition and Sale in St. Andrews.

That show, the largest in the Maritimes, is coming up soon, the second weekend in August. So what is Walter entering this year? A falcon and the Santa. Anything else? He wouldn’t say. Can his entries possibly match his complex carving of chimney swifts that won the People’s Choice Award a couple of years ago? We’ll have to wait to see.

One thing is clearly in the works, however. At the end of next year’s competition, Walter will begin his tenure as president of the New Brunswick Wood Carving Association, taking over from Doug Johnson of New Maryland. Given Walter’s commitment to carving as a highly valued craft, and with the ongoing support of Alma by his side, the Association will continue to be in good hands. And strong hands are a necessary component of the whole carving process.