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No ordinary sculptor: The man who makes wood come to life

Kevin McCardell at work. Photo / Kinsa Hays

In a small part of the Bay of Plenty works a man who can make satin and lace from wood.

Walking through Kevin McCardell’s gallery in Tauriko, you’ll be astonished by what appears to be clothing hanging on the walls. Closer inspection reveals these realistic creations are made of wood.

Carved folds hang loosely. The teeth of zips and the stitching on a sports bag is almost for real. The builder’s bag complete with tools seems ready to wear.

How does this man do it?

“I’ve been carving for thirty years,” McCardell says. “The first time I had anything to do with wood was building a pole house. I took my sketch to a draughtsman who drew it up, and then I helped the builders at each stage.”
He whittled three dolphins on an offcut with a Stanley knife in his down time. When he entered the carving in the Woodskills festival in Kawerau, it was Highly Commended and won him $50.

Four years later he was carving things of much greater value, working alone in his garage and sending his artworks to galleries. Ten years ago, McCardell moved to Tauriko.

He finds that mixing with customers again gives him a new perspective. He listens to their ideas, tests the market and markets himself.

McCardell is passionate about his work. The words flow as I wander around the gallery stroking wood, assessing texture and marvelling at the intricate femininity of lace on a dressing gown. The price tag is $10,000 and it has a red sticker. Sold.

“That took about three months,” says McCardell. “I draw the lace pattern, make a template that goes over the folds, draw it on and the chisel does the rest.”

The humpback whale is made of  Tasmanian blackwood, while the satin and lace robe is made of NZ kauri. Photo / supplied
His workbench is at the end of the gallery where anyone entering can see immediately what he’s working on.
“I think it’s an important achievement when visitors to a gallery are not intimidated. Here I can build rapport with the ordinary guy and he can learn exactly how it’s done. That creates connection.”

And how does he create the magic?

“I begin looking at a block of wood, where the grain goes and envisage what I might make from it. I chainsaw it into the basic shape outside, then draw on it and do the carving inside.”

A whale is outside taking shape, too big for the workshop space. McCardell flourishes a miniature version.
“Here’s her baby.”

Custom-made furniture shops surround the gallery and often first-time customers step across the yard to discover McCardell’s magic-making.

“I have to think of anything I create as three-dimensional. When you carve around the front, you have to think of the back. Once the wood is gone, it’s gone, unlike clay where you can dob another bit in.

“Timber is more difficult – the grain dictates how the piece is going to come out. You have to read the wood first, decide where a problem area might arise and cut the shape accordingly. It’s intuitive. The grain suggests something, maybe a fold, and I follow it.”
A jacket hangs, made of kauri. The badges are hand-painted. Photo / supplied

He adds, “I like to do ordinary everyday objects. The clothes we put on become our persona for the day, how we want others to perceive us. People can relate to my carving. Everyone has an old jacket or hat hanging up and when the carving reminds you of Dad’s old tweed jacket on a hook it’s like coming home, coming into a family environment. It makes people smile, and I like that.”

Is that what gives him the most satisfaction? “If someone thinks it will look good on their walls, I’m happy with that. And if they cherish what they’ve bought and pass it down through the family, that gives me a great deal of
satisfaction.”

I nod. His works are definitely heirloom pieces.

“A new coat is a new coat.” McCardell continues the flow. “A worn and weathered coat is the story of the person who lived in it. That allows us to identify with the sculpture, and perhaps a part of ourselves. I see visitors get inspired or uplifted here.”

“I get tour groups like Probus or gardening groups, twenty or thirty sometimes. I show them what I’m working on and the chisels, then we walk around and I talk about the carvings. They’re familiar objects with a difference. I like to think they go away feeling good about themselves.”

Observing how many different colours of wood hang on the walls, I ask where McCardell gets his supplies, comment on the pale creamy shade of the sports bag and trainers.

“It’s poplar,” he says. “I carved an armchair from it and that was a left-over block. I prefer to use kauri because it has a bland grain and that’s good. If the grain shows, the realism isn’t quite there. I use swamp kauri mostly, of varying ages. The wood in that jacket is 55,800 years old.”

This stops me in my tracks. “What a marketing point! How do you know?”

“I get my wood from a sawmill at Kaihu, north of Dargaville. Nelson Parker has resource consent to dig up the old buried logs and to mill stumps. He sends a sample from each log to Waikato University and they carbon-date it to get the age. It’s important because when my pieces go offshore, they’ve got provenance and won’t get into trouble with Customs. I catalogue each artwork, number, the year made, wood type and age, and add a high-res
photo of it. I also take a low-res photo for my website.”

Why low-res?

“There are unscrupulous people out there. A low-res image is not worth copying. I use a watermark too.”

McCardell is mainly discovered from word-of-mouth referrals, though he does exhibit his work.

“Like the fish-and-chips over there. That’s been part of the Shape Shifter exhibition at the Dowse in Lower Hutt. It was on a picnic table outside for three weeks. I had four Beach Access signs with a seagull on each to make a scene. Kids would sit there and play with the chips. It was as though they themselves were part of the sculpture.”

I inspect the piece – an unwrapped newspaper with the words and pictures painstakingly hand-drawn or painted on, hot dogs and a sachet of tomato sauce, two battered fish, a pile of chips and a quarter lemon with the label on it. McCardell smiles. “A talking piece.”

No ordinary basket of washing - it's made from kauri too. Photo / supplied

He gets commissions from all over the world, from people who come into the gallery while on holiday, or who have seen his work in an owner’s home. He gets many requests for the 21st birthday keys he sculpts, personalising each with something that belongs to and connects uniquely with the recipient.

Two things further that McCardell must consider: how the artwork hangs upon the wall and how to reduce the weight; for example, by carving out the insides of folds. His work, he says, displays better when lit from above at an angle, which accentuates shadows and the 3-D effect.

“I consider myself a craftsman with a skill, not merely with ideas,” McCardell concludes.

“I’m privileged to make a living in New Zealand from my work. It hasn’t come without trials and mistakes. My wife has been supportive through the tough years until I managed to create a niche market. Now I’m busier than I’ve ever been. As an artist, you must have faith and confidence in your ability, and when you face the challenge of a new block of wood.”