Artist Profile by Marie Gravelle Carving through time
by Marie Gravelle
There are certain substances in this world too different, or pure, or ancient to explain. Like diamonds that cut glass. Or amber that holds secrets.
Or ivory. Smooth and soft as skin, ivory is hard as bone. Cold and lifeless in reality, it emanates warmth. Carved and polished, its beauty has driven man to kill elephants, walrus and whales.
Yet living animals aren't the only source of ivory.
Michael Wark, a Eureka artist, has managed to create beautiful figures out of ivory - without spilling blood.
Using fossilized walrus teeth, Wark carves intricate-looking rats, lizards, heron, kingfishers, ravens, beetles, grasshoppers, whales, dolphins, frogs and more.
"I love to carve frogs," Wark said during a recent interview in his Eureka home/studio. He had a small collection of his work on display, including a silky-smooth frog, with a tiny frog on its back.
"I think frogs are real neat animals," he said.
To bring out the velvety feel of ivory, Wark starts with a tooth taken from an ancient Indian garbage dump on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
"I can just see these guys eating, and throwing the teeth over their shoulders," the artist said.
Human teeth, and those of most other animals, have a pith, or soft center. And they are made of the brittle substance, dentine. This doesn't work well for carving, as Wark can attest.
"I used to go to a taxidermist to try to get animal teeth," Wark said. "I even carved an elephant out of one of my teeth. But none of those worked because once you get to the dentine, it cracks."
But ivory, found in walrus tusks and teeth, is a different story. Using progressively smaller round balls or "gravers," Wark whittles away at a brownish finger-sized tooth until it shines - revealing a white, butterscotch or even reddish color. Sometimes it's kind of green.
"Like pea soup with carrots in it," Wark said.
The wonder of ivory is its inherent mottled or stripe patterns and its strength.
"Michael has an attribute to look for darker colors in the ivory, and be able to bring them out in a carving," said Jody Rusconi, owner of Graystone Jewelers in Old Town, Eureka. "He leaves a dark spot for an eye or to shape a dolphin's fluke."
Rusconi, who also owns a personal collection of Wark's work, said she could easily sell everything he made - if he would only make more.
"His pieces are gorgeous," she said. "He not only makes the animals identifiable but he captures a little bit of spirit."
Wark, 51, isn't what you'd call "production-focused." He works, like many artists, when a vision takes him. That could be now or never.
"The first thing I ever carved was a human head," Wark said, thinking back to more than a decade ago. "It was literally a spiritual experience."
Since then he's carved thousands of pieces, and the thrill of working with ivory is that it carves easily, but is difficult to break.
"A burglar broke into an Old Town store and the thief just took my carvings," Wark said. "That was kind of nice. But then he threw them at someone who was chasing him. And none of them broke."
One of Wark's talents, and perhaps one of his faults, is that carving is easy for him. One acquaintance wondered if he understood the enormity of his gift.
"It's a gift," Wark admits. "I'm human. I want people to go, 'Oh wow!'"
And they do. A small assortment of his carvings can now be found, ranging from $60 and up, at Ambiance Gallery in Eureka and at Graystone.
But there's a humble side to Wark that surprises those in the art world. "I have a style," he'll say, and add, "which I feel really good about - that I even have one."
Admirers often exclaim about the detail in Wark's carvings, the languid restfulness of a rat's tail, or the apparent movement in an egret's plumage.
"In reality there is no detail; your brain is making it up," Wark said. Using dark and light, he adds dimension and character to the pieces. "I carve in a way so that shadows make things there that aren't really there."
Those who purchase his animal pieces often become collectors.
"Usually people that buy my carvings don't say, 'Gee, I want to buy a fossilized walrus tooth,'" Wark said, laughing. "But I've had people tell me they want to buy everything I make."
Actually Wark hasn't carved much lately. Maybe he's misplaced his drive or is waiting for a vision. Many on the North Coast hope he gets back to work soon.
"People recognize his work right away," Rusconi said.
As if to thumb his nose at the material world or maybe to search beyond this world, Wark doesn't sell all his pieces. He doesn't keep them, either.
"Every now and then I carve a sea shell and throw it into the bay," he said. "I buried one carving on Moonstone Beach (near Trinidad)."
Considering the fact that Wark's walrus teeth have been around for 15,000 years, the carvings (sacrificial and otherwise) will last longer than any of us.
And if you're digging around the big rock at Moonstone, keep alert for buried treasure. Maybe something is not what it appears, and more precious than you think.
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