Woodcarving in the Catskill Mountains with Alexander Yerks


Do you ever get a nostalgic feeling of simpler times when you see hand-crafted, locally sourced products direct from the Craftsman?  Seeing the detail and heart put into crafting these items is truly inspiring. We had the opportunity to spend some time with master wood craftsmen Alexander Yerks. Yerks enjoys living off the grid tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. He is a true advocate of Living the Compas Life everyday, and below is an interview of his story.

Can you describe the first time you were inspired to start learning the craft of woodcarving?

I think growing up where I did and how I was raised was the catalyst. I grew up with the Appalachian Trail in my parent’s backyard. The forest was right there.. we didn’t live off a main road and it was on top of a little mountain in Wingdale, Upstate New York. Most kids would play out in the yard (this is before the digital age.) But I would spend all hours of the day wandering off trail trying to understand the natural world around me. I encourage folks of any age to go wander, get a little lost in the woods. You learn a lot about yourself that way. After all, this is where us humans came from. I was inspired to take up woodcarving when I was living in Brooklyn for about five years, and the city life was draining me. I was working in photography and the fashion world (imagine that).  I saw some old videos of Bob Dylan and The Band up in Woodstock, NY just having a good ole time in the woods playing music. I also watched this documentary about Dick Proenokee called “Alone in the Wilderness” and that was the nail in the coffin. I had to get back home under the trees again. As soon as I came back I sort’ve had to figure out how to survive again. I still do my freelance photography today but balance it with my woodcraft. I started carving because I’d need something around the house and I don’t really believe in jumping in a car driving 40 miles to some store just to bring home junk.  

So the real carving bug started with these wooden cups called “Kuksas”.

Then I started carving spoons. I did this every day, in fact, I’ve done it every single day for the past six years. An axe and knife in my hand day by day is the only way to live. There is no feeling of being bored anymore. It’s remedied with creating something beautiful whether its wooden, music, or film.

What makes this specific craft unique is that you don’t need a special shop space to work in. You have the most simplest of tools, and they can be taken anywhere. Carving a spoon on a train, on a bed, camping in the forest, in the living room, and maybe one day even in outer space. It’d be much easier to clean up wood chips than sawdust in space. Which makes wood carving ultimately better than power tool related wood working. There.. that age old argument has just been squashed.

There are so many types of unique pieces you can craft on a daily basis. What is you favorite item to carve and why?

I would have to say my favorite item that I carve religiously are the wooden cups. There is something special about them. Something worth mentioning is as of right now I’m probably the only one in the country that I know is carving these as a production carver. Meaning high output, working on specific designs daily. These aren’t artistic objects, I have to remind folks of this. I don’t make ‘one off ‘ items that sell for an astronomical price, and are only meant to sit on some stuffy shelf to be looked at by art gallery buffs. That is not my bag at all. These are very special objects that us humans have a very deep cultural and ancient connection to. At one point for thousands of years, all homes had wooden cups, plates, bowls, and spoons to drink and eat from. I find that exciting but also a bit sad that in our post-industrial revolution lives have nearly abandoned something that was so close to us. In some ways I feel like I’m on a mission, but I’m also trying to learn more about myself and our culture. Have you folks reading ever felt disconnected and wondered why? Why do we yearn to return to the forests we once came from? Think about these things, and when you’re drinking from a wooden cup looking into the reflection on the liquids surface think about how easily we could fill that void again. 

There is freedom in simplicity.

Can you tell us some history behind the craft, and the culture that brings local woodcarving craftsmen like yourself together?

 Trying to cram the history of craft into this little spot would be a mighty feat. But I can talk about how what we’re doing today relates to life back then. Before the industrial revolution throwaway culture didn’t really exist. People weren’t eating off plastic, and only the folks with a lot of money ate off of metal of ceramic-ware. So you go from the beginning of time up until then and people ate off of wood. It’s what we’re calling “wood culture”.  Back when each town had a butcher, bodger, blacksmith, cooper, and so on. You also had someone that could turn bowls on a spring pole lathe, and others who made spoons. There was a purpose to things.

Most folks think life back then is so different but looks what’s happening with the DIY or green movements, and our everlasting poor economy, it’s driving people to think about what they’re spending on, and what they’re bringing into their homes. A wooden plate will last many lifetimes, and if it ends up tossed out, it returns to the dirt.

I can say a lot about my philosophies on why these things are better, but it comes down to efficiency and quality of life. That 15-cent fork you got from the mega chain mart, how much did it really cost? The ore was strip mined, and all the different factories it processed through, the ore shipped across the world before it’s even stamped out. Then shipped to you? It’s no wonder we are a disposable fast food society.. we have lost our value in the items we fill our homes with. 

I like to think of this positively that people are starting to wake up and realize they’re not only wasting their hard-earned money, but can these objects we cheaply buy make us happy? For me, they can’t. But when I pick up a bowl made by my friend Jarrod Stone Dahl in Wisconsin or a spoon carved by another friend Magnus Sundelin in Sweden, those items do bring me something. You think about who made them, where they came from, and how many meals will be elevated because of the quality.

What brings other woodcarvers together is really the fact that there are so few of us that are doing this as a way of living. So most of us are willing to sacrifice some miles on the road to spread wood culture, and to spend time learning from each other. The island of misfit carvers.. 

You are an artist of many talents including woodcarving, photography & musician. Do you somehow incorporate the three into your everyday routine?

That has been the biggest struggle. I’ve spent many days stressing how I can make that trinity work just right. I think after six years of this, I am realizing that I am doing that already and don’t have to figure out some complicated solution for this life. 

I carve objects that I personally use, but I sell them as a business, then I photograph them, and make films which need musical soundtracks. It seems to work.

I still shoot portraits freelance as well, which I am becoming less dependent on for income as the carving seems to be taking off.

A typical day at home is working on carvings, and in between breaks I’ll head to the computer to edit stills to post, and get distracted by a song playing and then a guitar ‘somehow’ ends up in my hands. At first it was distracting and I didn’t get much progress done. Now I can almost do all three at once.

There is a language that connects all three. Music has rhythm, beat, composition, depth, feeling.. photography and wood carving all have that as well.

Never let anyone tell you that you can only be great at only one thing. 

As an outdoor enthusiast, what draws you to the Catskill region, and do you have a favorite location to hike/visit?
I guess I have some special spots I like to visit. But really my favorite thing to do is explore new parts of the forest. There is something exciting about not knowing what you’ll find around each bend and often I wander off trail, which usually takes me to some interesting places. Sometimes I find some odd things in the woods.

What type of trees does the Catskill region have to offer, and how do you go about picking the perfect piece of wood as your canvas?

Well what is unique about wood is that it is a living material. Unlike most of the other materials we used to make things.

So each tree has certain habits how the grains behave. I find it fascinating that humans have forever had a symbiotic relationship with this material. 

Most modern woodworkers are focusing on fast grown, straight grained wood. Which is nice sometimes if you want something a bit more predictable, to work faster - no brainer. But with that comes some weaknesses. Generally what I’m looking for when looking up at the tree canopy is shapes that can lend themselves to the project in mind.

You want a well designed ladle? Well if you make it from straight grained wood, there are fragile sections. Form follows function (something said to me once by a craftsperson I have always respected)  So with that said, you want long continuous fibers to make a strong ladle.  

Another example would be wooden skis. The best ones already have that bent shape in front, and it grew that way. No steam bending or glue needed.

My favorite tree to work with is the birch. Every single part of the tree is useful. The bark can be weaved into very durable baskets. The bark can also be distilled into a tar/oil that can be used for many different medicines, and also used as nature’s epoxy. Bark was also used for centuries to build North America’s pick up trucks before we had automobiles -  The birchbark canoe.

The wood has been used for lots of projects. It’s beautifully plain, and has a pale glow in the sunlight. For me, this craft is very sustainable and doesn’t compete with nature. Trees are selectively cut which also opens up space for new growth in the forest. I rarely have any waste wood leftover. I’ll even use the branch sections to make coat racks and other useful things.

The trees can be tapped for sap as well.

If someone is serious about taking up woodcarving as a hobby, what are some tips you can suggest to get started?

I would suggest just finding a simple straight knife, a hooked knife, and any old hand me down hatchet. If you can learn to sharpen, you can turn those old tools into light sabers. There are also a few great blacksmiths I personally deal with that make some of the best tools in the world specifically for this type of craft.

I’d also suggest spending time in the forest gaining a better understanding how trees grow and what conditions affect that. I imagine some people look at me cutting a tree down as some shameful act but really I am doing more good for the forest, and also educating each person that uses my carvings in their daily lives.

The best way to learn this craft is exactly how I did. Grab a knife and piece of wood and just learn the different knife grips. Start with a simple object like a spoon. Wood is interesting because whatever you’re doing will either work, or it won’t. The simplest way to learn. The knife won’t cut because of the grain characteristics, so you have to constantly adjust and adapt while also manipulating around this object in your hands. I don’t know many other arts or crafts where you have a constantly revolving object right under your nose. Most of the time folks are working on a table, or with an object anchored down to something.

If you can, hop on the internet and find other carvers out there. You’d be surprised how large this small niche community of craft folk has grown in the past five years. If you’re on Facebook check out - Spoon carving, green woodworking, and sloyd group.

You have also mentioned that you offer Woodcarving Workshops at your Yurt in Woodstock, NY, can you provide details on what someone would learn by taking this workshop?

I offer a couple different workshops. Spoon carving, Kuksa carving, and bowl carving. I will probably expand on these ideas but I’d like to start simple with the objective that any beginner can show up and by dinner time leave here with the skills and technique needed to make that object. It’s very empowering and once you realize you can make anything with your hands, you can apply these skills to other aspects in life. Now that I can carve, I am a whiz in the kitchen with a chef’s knife for one example. Tool sharpening is one of the most important parts of craft, so a little of that would be covered.

Right now I’ll be hosting one-day workshops. But in the future I’d like to host multi-day workshops, maybe even take a group camping under the trees we would be carving. This way I can show people how to select the right tree, how to safely fell it, and process it from natural form to finished object.

I also have an array of rare or hard to get woodworking tools - axes, adzes, froes, bent gouges, and hook knives. This gives folks a chance to actually try out these specific tools before investing in some blindly, as most will, due to the internet.

I think a great workshop would be tool maintenance, and how to revive old rusty throwaways. 

Can you tell us about the North American Treen Alliance, and what the collective will be focusing on?

The name of a collective was sort of just a play on words for a goof. At the time I wanted to talk about this unnamed group and for my point to get across I made it sound like some formal military-esque operation. Almost like the people crafting are soldiers or warriors in craft. Kind of like modern society’s rebels willing to fight to preserve the good ole life.

 

I like to think of treen alliance as a spoken and unspoken group. Sort of how a fight club works.. there is no HQ because every town has a little scrap of this scene going on. So if we look out for each other and communicate, we can, as a focused group, start changing the public perception of what we’re doing as a craft. It’s not trinketry art. It’s craft. They are two different things. 

Wooden objects have been a part of every culture, so why should it seem out of place today? Craft to me is about community, sharing, collaborating, and celebrating our culture. I like to think it still has it’s place in our modern times.

That was my main inspiration to start gathering people together. In England and Sweden there seems to be a revival of wood craft, but here in America we’re so spaced apart seem to not remember we used to have this culture. 

Now I have been putting myself out there hosting my own gatherings, and driving many miles on the road to meet other crafters. We seem to have a special camaraderie. This is how you keep traditions or heritage from dying. So for us, we get together and carve to talk about it simply. You share skills, stories, what things you’ve had breakthroughs with, but most important you have fun and pass along what you know. We also like to use or test what we’re making so good food and drink is always going around. 

I actually just got back from a teaching trip last week up to Grand Marais, Minnesota where I was asked to teach kuksa carving at North House. Ten students walked away hungry with everything they needed to carve at home. It’s a great feeling knowing you just lit the spark for someone new. They will pass on the excitement and it keeps spreading like the flu. 

I guess now you can see why I first thought of “Treen Alliance” .. we’re looking for new recruits everyday!

Lastly, at Compas our message is to Be Curious. Be Adventurous, Live The Compas Life. Do you have any advice from your personal experiences that you can offer that will help guide them along the way? 

Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of doing something you feel is right. Take some risks, get out into the vast open wilderness, make new friends as much as possible, and when the summit of the hill seems just too out of reach, roll up your sleeves and trudge on. It’s right over the bend.

Please visit www.theaxeisboldaslove.com for additional information about Carving Workshops, Products and the Treen Alliance. 

All photos provided and taken by Alexander Yerks