I was first introduced to André Souligny after he sent me an email of thanks for adding him to my list of spoon carvers. By coincidence, I had also read his article about spoon carving in Taproot Magazine right around the same time. One email led to another, and André was kind enough to answer a few questions that I had about his life and work as a spoon carver.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been carving and how did you first get interested in it?
I have been carving since 1996. I encountered green woodworking, and subsequently spoon carving, that year in a course titled Earth Household Arts, as an undergraduate student at Goddard College. One of the instructors, 17th century furniture maker Robert Tarule, brought a froe into the classroom and demonstrated the use of the tool, riving some green white oak. From that moment on I was enamored with green woodworking and the use of hand tools. Another student in the course loaned me his bent knife from west coast tool maker Jim Wester of North Bay Forge, and over a school trip to Plymouth Plantation and New Alchemy, I carved a primitive spoon out of a piece of dogwood. I knew I was on to something that really satisfied me deeply and personally. Both of my parents are artists, my father a goldsmith, and my mother a fiber artist. Both had a passion for “old stuff” so I grew up in environments where material objects from the past were collected and revered, many involving iron and wood and carving or sculpture.
What are a few of your favorite spoon carving tools?
I have used the North Bay Forge Deep Bent Knife almost exclusively for concave work. I have in the past few years taken up the Mora 120 as my straight knife. I find it to be extremely reliable. I have an old Millers Falls chip carving knife that I use to make the primitive star design on the handles of most of my spoons by pressing the tip into the wood when it is completely dry.
Wester’s tools are beautiful and razor sharp out of the package. Since I rarely carve anything but green wood with them, they remain very sharp and need only a rare dressing with 1000 grit sandpaper. I’m experimenting with spoon knives made by the Vermont blacksmith Lucian Avery.
Why is “the studio” the place you want to be?
I used to just stare and stare at the book “With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton” by Charles F. Hummel. I just found the pictures of the workshop mind blowing. I have encountered a lot of workshops and studios over the years, from a Vermont icon painter to a picture frame maker to a yarn maker to a letter press printer to an empty Aikido dojo. It is something about how each craftsperson and artist personalizes their workspace, and their processes and tools and materials bare before you. I just love the work spaces created by craftspeople. Like when you visit college art spaces, ceramics studios, woodshops, to see the tailings and the Mr. Natural cartoons and hear the music being listened to…great places. Not like a beige cubicle with a window to a lot full of cars…
Any suggestions for books or websites to learn about carving or woodwork?
I must admit I am not much of a reader. I am a real hands-on, visual learner and I experiment a lot. I’ve found a rich source of photographs of antique spoons in coffee table books at the library from the 70’s and 80’s about things like “country kitchens”. From these close-up photos of well used kitchen ware, I find ideas and inspiration. I really learned by being handed a knife, and thankfully I did not injure myself at first. The things I love the most to visit and revisit are the old videos of Romanian and Swedish craftspeople, as well as the Turkish bow lathe and Chinese Uyghur spoon makers, and Drew Langsner’s (I believe?) videos of cooper Swiss Rudy Kholer from the 70’s or 80’s. All I’ve been thinking about lately is this tiny spoon my co-worker brought me from Tanzania, and where is the video of the person making it? I also have a book in German called “Grünholz Schnitzen” “Carve Green Wood” with fantastic kids’ projects. So, you know, hang out on YouTube for a while, or go to some old-timey exhibits/living history museums, and especially get into international travel, but spend more time making, or making videos of other people at work, or of yourself at work…Books and more so images/drawings/diagrams/videos should be like a slingshot that catapult you into something. Woodworking in Estonia. In Praise of Hands/Essay by Octavio Paz. The Artisan of Ipswich/Robert Tarule.
Are there any spoon carvers who inspire you in your work?
The people who inspire me most inspire me by their humble, unassuming nature, and their posture of welcoming, non-judgmental joy in the craft. I’ve never met any of the more famous folks in person, so I wouldn’t rely on what I’ve read or heard of them, but it does seem that there is a warm and receptive tone among many of them. The knowledge that others are carving gives me joy, and I like to believe I belong to this community keeping the traditions and enjoying each other’s creation and process. There is an endless amount to learn from and share with others. I tend to avoid staring too much at another persons’ work because I love making and I’m usually doing so! We all have so much to learn from one another, eh?
You wrote a great blog post about your father’s work as a goldsmith. What have you learned about craft from his experience?
Thank you for the compliment. As far as craft goes, my father rarely “took an order” and tried to make someone else’s design for them. I am much the same way. Not that I don’t like a challenge, but I find that I don’t really know what is coming in a piece of wood, and I like it that way. I set out with only the vaguest of notion of what I want to make. I think it’s the inspiration and energy one feels to make something, and the joy of making things, using tools, and seeing something through from a tree or a drawing to a spoon or a ring. The process is the root of the craft. End products send you right back to the process with new ideas and knowledge and more questions. But, upon reflection, I am also not so great with deadlines, and I’m a little fearful of not pleasing someone who’s made an order. With the finished product, they know what they are getting before they pay, right? The inspiration to make spoons comes and goes. I like the roughing out end of the work quite a bit more than the finish work…which is interestingly a reflection of me as a person in many ways, and a reflection of the difference between me and my father/his craft, where the micro-filing of inclusions in the finished ring would drive me bananas. I like tool marks. He does not.
What are your thoughts on popular decorative techniques like milk paint, kolrosing, or chip carving?
I love what people are doing! I make minimal and somewhat primitive embellishments on my spoons; a finial, or star, and I’ve experimented with some chip carving. I haven’t tried paint, but I think it is beautiful. I’m attracted to the three-dimensional handle carving (animals, etc.) on African and South American spoons that I’ve seen. But decorative carving is not my greatest talent. I’ve been thinking lately about making some ladles with copper handles for fun, I thought they would look beautiful, but I am still working on how to connect the wood and copper gracefully and durably.
Talk a little about the cycle of craft – how are forgotten knowledge, skills, and tools remembered again?
A reoccurring theme in my experience is encounters with elders. Last weekend I was talking with an elderly man who canes chairs, and who said it will be his last time at the event we were demonstrating at. He was telling me about a shingle-making machine he had that connected to his tractor and produced shingles by loading blocks of wood. As much as we can know in an instant about what is happening on the other side of the earth, there are few, like for example the Italian Bagpipe maker in Scapoli, Italy that I met this April, who keep the traditions. In the hollows of a dilapidated castle, he turns out traditional Italian bagpipes. The gift of going to his workspace, to hear him talk about craft with such passion, keeps me inspired. Much like that video of JoJo Wood apprenticing the clog maker. I think from each renaissance rise young experts and wise elders and craft ever evolves. What humbles me, though, are the postcards from the late 1800’s of the Russian families making spoons. 50-gallon baskets full. I look at those post cards, then at websites like Herriott Grace, and I’m like “what am I doing?”. I’m talking to the elders, as many as I can find. And digging through boxes for old tools in New England…every once and a while I find a book I didn’t know about. Truly each person can carry some skill from the past forward…seems many have some special part of the process they are most interested in, so documentation of some kind is imperative, and books are timeless while digital media is fickle and can be ephemeral. I’ve never cared to much for the over-used words “discovery” and “invention”, but I like the idea of re-discovery, “barn archeology” or “living anthropology” I like to call it, as well as the evolution of craft.
You’ve spent 15 years getting to know a small part of the forest where you live. What have you learned from it?
There is a never-ending amount of peace to be found there. Little can be done to influence blackberries. If blackberries are in the vicinity, unless you want to spread them, do not disturb the soil. If you hold still and remain silent, you will see wonderful things. I believe the forest wants us in there, instead of out here. To protect us from ourselves and remind us what true gifts are there to experience.
What does “new wood culture” and sloyd mean to you?
I’m just old enough to have been exposed to some trades in High School in the US. Surely, I believe that the US education system, and by association the citizenry, would deeply benefit from honoring the value of our hands and those who are better with their hands than with academics. While some places have programs available for trades, I believe if it were more mainstream, it would benefit many young people. Forcing people into things they don’t like, or do well, creates mediocracy everywhere. The big problem is money, right? We all need it to live…or do we? There is a false rush to decide who you are and what your career is, and, if you borrow your way through education, then you are trapped in the US work-$-debt cycle until you figure a way out. Would it not be better to discover that you are great with your hands, and take that road from a young age, without being “less-than”? It is much about what we value as people, too, which relates back to our nurture, right? It’s a complex question. To me, a person making on the street is my idol. Because I value what they know and what they can do that I can see. There is no mystery, and no life of making money off other people’s money or labor. There is a direct exchange. Couldn’t we, in a balanced way, value the hard work of green woodworking and the hard work of accounting, by offering similar wages? There may not be anything new about wood culture. Since the early 90’s, the internet has helped connect and spread these ideas, which were there all along, with many examples of those keeping the skills alive all over the world and in the US. The nice thing now is that there is a lot of energy around craft and its value, not just as a spoon for example, but as a process that yields satisfaction, perhaps even therapy, perhaps even community!
You’ve written, “The experience of green woodworking and spoon making all hovers around the idea of connection.” Talk a little about that means.
Well I’ve probably touched on this, but, you know you find an old tool and you say, “what is this” and you find out, you fix it, you try it out. Then you take it and use it in public, and an elder comes up to you and says, “you have that upside down” and proceeds to tell you a story about their father or grandfather. Or someone says, “didn’t dad make mustard spoons?” and you say, “what’s a mustard spoon” and that someone tells you about mustard spoons and you start to try your hand at them or look for information about them. Or, your elderly neighbor takes your workshop, and years later he passes away, and his wife calls you and says “these spoons were under the seat of his truck and I want you to have them”, and in exchange you find a picture of him whittling that you took at the workshop and give it to her and she’s never seen it. Little things like this. Bridges and acquaintances and bits and pieces of information. A spoon you made in a friend’s kitchen. It’s fantastic. I wish I’d started earlier…
Any thoughts about why the analog/traditional matter so much in our digital world?
None other than I wholeheartedly agree so much with this notion. I think people are starving to connect but are distracted by virtual connection. Maybe “making” will win? Although, I do have to give my deep appreciation to all the people who take the time and effort and expense to document electronically their work and share it with others. This is super valuable, in fact, underappreciated!
What do you enjoy most in teaching others about spoon carving? What do you think new carvers gain from learning this craft?
Teaching is challenging. I enjoy seeing each person problem solve problems and learn as they go along about wood grain. I especially enjoy the results of the first spoon. I’m disappointed when there is a person who really struggles, and it is maybe not their thing. I’m always adding to my repertoire different ways to hold the work without big benches and vices to try an accommodate different comfort levels with edge tools, to not leave anyone behind. I think there are some sure-fire ways for everyone to make a spoon. I think finishing something and using it to eat or cook or to give as a special gift really gives people a deep sense of satisfaction. And there is comrade and humor, and the occasional carved-too-thin or nick of the finger…
Talk a little about the quiet contemplation of spoon carving. How does it differ when you are teaching a group and when you are carving alone?
My mind is quite empty of “thought” when I’m making a spoon…it’s really a wordless harmony between the brain that controls my hands, the tool, my eyes, sound, the wood changing with every chop/slice. There is direction happening, but not like “I’m going to do this, then this, then this…” I see and do, and there is a little bit of “Ah, I see what this will become now”. There is both an overall idea of what you are making as well as some mystery until you get to a certain point, especially if an unexpected knot turns up, then you must make decisions instead of letting it flow.
If you had to pick few songs to listen to while carving, what would they be?
Lately I have been listening to a lot of music from Mali. It is super beautiful and conducive to chopping and carving. I’ve been getting obsessed with Africa for some reason I guess I want to know how they make spoons and I can’t find out through any conventional means I’ve found so far.
Where can people find you online? And how can they buy your spoons?
www.spoonderlust.com that’s my blog, and there you will find a link to my Etsy shop. My Esty shop is sometimes empty, but this will change. People can contact me through the blog and I can add them to the email list, where they will receive an email when I put a new batch of spoons up in the Etsy shop. Generally, one can find what my public outing schedule is on the website. I offer individual instruction and workshops in and immediately around Vermont, but I’m open to ideas. There is also a PayPal link on my blog to support keeping the blog going.
Any final thoughts on pursuing a craft like spoon carving?
If you have an addictive personality, and you like to collect things, be careful before you get started…I suggest that true beginners start with a class where everything is provided. I recommend carving green wood rather than dry wood. I think tools should be sharp and you should not wear gloves or thumb covers. I believe that spoon making can be really adaptable for people with special circumstances.
Thanks André! As I have said previously, my goals with this website are to learn more about spoon carving and connect with the great community of spoon carvers out there. I welcome carvers to contact me if you would like to be interviewed to share your thoughts on the craft of spoon carving.