James Atkin has been creating high relief woodcarvings on Vancouver Island for close to twenty years. His calling as a woodcarver was born out of a life long affiliation with wood, a love of art and a need to create. While recovering from a series of surgeries and with a need to channel energy and frustration, he started carving. Completely self-taught, what began as a form of therapy has gradually blossomed into a passion that is almost an obsession.
Jim is both tickled and intrigued by whimsy, which is apparent in much of his work. His love for the gardens and the natural beauty that surrounds his home on Canada’s Vancouver Island are also captured in many of his carvings.
Somewhat of a purist, Jim prides himself on creating high relief carvings from a single piece of hardwood using only a sealer to protect the wood. This provides the woodcarvings with a natural looking satin finish rather than a contemporary high gloss. Jim loves the intricacies and difficulties of high relief carving. Although the wood imposes and more often than not creates constraints, it is an enjoyable challenge. That challenge requires the ability to visualize in three dimensions and to carve the piece making use of light and shadow in a creative and interesting fashion.
How do you do that?”
“How do you do that?” is the question Jim is most often asked about his carving. His simplest answer is, “I take away the wood I don’t want.” Creating a high relief woodcarving requires a tendency to be anal retentive, have great courage and a smattering of artistic license. Not to mention a great deal of time. This is exactly how James Atkin would describe himself.
There are only two of Jim’s carvings that took less than three months to produce from concept to the finished piece. The largest carving took eighteen months.
His inspiration for a wood relief carving comes from many directions: an idea that amuses him, a photograph, a moment in the garden, or simply an intriguing image. The original idea then morphs into something quite different as it slowly presents itself under the tools. The completed design is redone many times on paper until the form and feel are just right and Jim is confident that it will conform to the wood.
Producing a multi level relief woodcarving requires considerable flexibility in design and implementation. Wood likes to move, particularly when relieved during the carving process. This tendency is minimized by laminating the wood blocks, alternating the end grains while matching the surface grains and hoping the wood will do as it’s told. It is a rather exacting process. Jim’s preference is to use hard woods such as walnut, padauk and teak. Though more difficult to carve, he finds they will produce the level of detail he wants.
The carving process
The carving process is difficult to explain without writing a book. Simply put, Jim uses an array of tools to transform a block of wood into an intricate work of art. Those tools include a wide variety of gouges, rifflers, dental tools, foredom drills, fingernails and anything that will give life to all the levels of each element.
The high relief woodcarving is finished using a series of ever finer grit sand paper on every surface, edge and nook and cranny. This takes almost as long as it does to carve it. He uses only tung oil sealer to enhance the natural beauty of the wood and to protect it.