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Bill Parrack — Benoni’s master carver

Benoni’s Bill Parrack says you don’t have to be artistic to become a carver, but you do need to be able to see what you are looking at.

He should know. He is regarded as one of South Africa’s foremost master carvers and teaches the art to people from all walks of life.

If his father had owned a car 60 years ago, Bill might have become one of the country’s foremost sculptors.

He was 16 at the time; his transport was a bicycle and it was too far to ride to Hartebeestpoort Dam to take up an invitation to study sculpture under the renowned Coert Steynberg,

Instead, Bill entered his apprenticeship as a patternmaker at Standard Brass, in Benoni, and found that the carving required for pattern-making gave him a grounding in the art form.

As for wood carving, in the absence of teachers he had to teach himself.

The secret to good carving, said Bill, is looking at the subject and seeing what is there – “The way a flower lies on a bush, the shape of a leaf, and the number of toes on an elephant, for instance”.

“How many toes does an elephant have?” he asked.

Bill, who used to live in Farrarmere, recently moved to a plot in the Benoni Agricultural Holdings, where he spent R300 000 on a new studio.

It’s north-facing, which means it never gets direct sunlight, but its massive windows ensure the atelier boasts magnificent natural light.

This is enhanced by walls painted in a muted colour.

Light conditions play a large part in successful carving, as do perspective and shadows, and Bill stresses their importance to his novices.

He runs courses during the day and in the evenings and the sessions typically last three hours.

He takes up to 10 people at a session, but he has, very occasionally, done one-on-one training.

Beginners are taught the 14 basic cuts on a block of wood – all his teaching is done on a relatively soft wood called Jelutong – and then they tackle a set piece of plants, flowers and leaves, which encompasses all the cuts.

Thereafter it is up to the individuals to decide on patterns they would like to carve.

The pattern is either copied directly from a picture, or is altered make it more “carveable”.

The copy is stuck to the wood and carving begins.

Bill will take about a week to do a carving. His students take up to three months, depending on the intricacy.

Most of Bill’s work is “relief carving”, best described as carving pictures in wood. Wood is removed from a flat wood panel in such a way that an object appears to rise out of the wood.

In its highest form, relief carving manifests itself in the ecclesiastic work used to decorate church columns, panels and pulpits.

He also carves statuary, which he teaches to those who want to learn the art – as long as they have mastered relief carving first.

What intrigues him the most is the Love Spoon, which he finds the most relaxing and satisfying to carve.

Love Spoons were traditionally given to a young woman by her suitor.

If she accepted it the young man knew he was barking up the right tree. If she didn’t, he knew to take the bark of another tree and start again.

And his tools? He has about 400 of them, which he has collected over the years and some are irreplaceable.

A starter kit consists of six tools.

“When you get better there is a ‘Ladies Set’ – 12 gouges – and professional sets,” Bill explained.

It is also possible to buy gouges and chisels piecemeal, at about R250 each.

But the choice is the individual’s and some people stay with the starter kit for most of their carving “careers”.

Bill is currently working on a St Patrick’s cross for the daughter of a good friend.

He has done about 150 carvings of which he is especially proud, including four chairs for a Roman Catholic Church and a cross for the Northfield Methodist Church.

He is a founder member and past chairman of the East Rand Woodworkers’ Association (ERWA) and his work will be on view at ERWA’s 10th annual fair, at Northfield Methodist Church, on September 21.

You can learn more about the fair – and carving – from Bill on 084 509 7379.

n By the way, an elephant has three toes on its back feet and four on its front feet.

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