Carving Character

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jul 16, 2015 3:52 PM

Former fisherman Kevin Coates of Winterton, Newfoundland has long known the value of a good fish-filleting knife. But instead of splitting cod with the traditional tool, for the last 15 years or so he's been wielding it to create art.

"I was looking for something to do with wood, something different, because I hate measuring and when everything has to be perfect and that," begins Kevin. A pattern for a wood-carved caricature in a magazine piqued his curiosity, so he tried his hand at it all those years ago. While he says his first few attempts weren’t much to look at, with practice it’s clear he’s mastered the unique, intricate art form. And Kevin’s work isn’t your grandfather’s carving; the characters he produces are so life-like, so realistic, they appear like real people frozen in time, mid-conversation. 

Kevin says he mainly takes inspiration from individuals he’s encountered in his own past - typically, quintessential outport folk.

“It’s all based on what I remember, the old fellas around the wharf, berrypickers,” says Kevin.

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Each creation starts out the same: as a simple piece of pine. Kevin draws onto the wood the rough shape of whichever character is occupying his mind’s eye, then cuts along his markings with his band saw. The rest is done by hand, first with his trusty filleting knife, and finally with specialized carving tools to whittle away at the finer details. He spends a great deal of time carving the faces, in particular.

“When I start, even though I know what I’m going to do - if it’s going to be a fisherman or whatever it is - the face, however it’s going to look, is just as I go,” he says. And each one has its own unique charm: a fisherman’s weather-beaten cheeks, the wise eyes of a sailor, a mischievous grin that speaks a thousand words. He says older folks tend to have more character in their faces; that’s why the majority of his carvings depict that generation. Finally, Kevin uses acrylic paint to add colour, finishing with linseed oil and paint thinner. 

Every so often, however, Kevin breaks with his creative flow to produce something more exacting. He says he accepts some commissioned work, including requests from customers wanting wooden caricatures of friends or relatives. Several years ago he was commissioned to create a caricature of the premiers of each Canadian province - and the likenesses were astounding.

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Between commissioned pieces and Kevin’s own creative designs - not to mention the Christmas rush (Kevin also carves Santa Claus and mummers in his signature style) - he’s extremely busy keeping up with demand. But despite his hectic schedule, Kevin doesn’t believe in short cuts.

“I could get power tools and do it, and I could do it a lot faster - you can even get duplicators and you can duplicate,” says Kevin. But it’s just not the same. “I don’t like the look of the finish with the power tools,” he says. 

Kevin’s carvings are typically available at Devon House in St. John’s, Gros Morne Crafts in Rocky Harbour and at King’s Point Pottery. Where won’t you find Kevin’s work? In his own home. 

“I don’t have one for myself, and I’m after doing, I’d say, over 5,000 carvings now,” says Kevin. “It’s no big deal to me; I enjoy doing it, right? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. I just likes to do it and once it’s done [it’s] out the door.”

In recent years, people have been asking Kevin if he’d be willing to teach a class in his signature carving style. That’s something he’s been considering. 

“I had to do it the hard way, learn it on my own,” says Kevin, laughing. “But the thing is, it’s my own style. I don’t think I’d want it any different.”By Ashley Colombe

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Kevin (left) will be demonstrating his carving skills at the Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton on August 15, 2015. Drop by to see him in action.