Colorado Homes & Lifestyles
By Linda Bikis
There's something provocative about watching someone do what they do well: an Olympic skier finessing his way down a slalom run, a concert pianist playing Beethoven's Fifth are awe inspiring to witness. But watching an artist create something out of nothing is perhaps the most gratifying.
Nora Hall learned the art of wood carving from her father in Holland during World War II. She brought her classic European style to this country in 1956 and eventually attracted such renowned clients as Hugh Hefner. The Playboy mansion in Bel Air, Calif., boasts many of her carvings. Today, she lives in Arvada and works in the basement of her home. she creates chimneypieces, carved doors, statues, gun stocks, outdoor signs and many other carved items.
Hall is a very youthful 65. She stands 5 feet 8 inches tall and her green eyes gleam with enthusiasm. She married her third husband, Sam, nine years ago and is the mother of six children, one of whom works with her. She exudes confidence, but is not egotistical. She takes her work very seriously, but maintains a sense of humor. She has a contagious laugh and still speaks with an accent which adds to her charm.
Hall and her husband moved to Colorado from California in 1984, mainly to be closer to her four children who live here. "Colorado kind of grows on you," she says. "You still see the stars, the traffic isn't so bad and it's not so hot."
When it comes to talking about her personal life, Hall dodges questions, redirecting the conversation back to her carvings. "I'm not what's important, the work is," she argues. "What do I do? I work. I have no hobbies, do l?" she asks her son, Wendell. "I like to travel, but that's nothing special. Everyone does."
On this day, the woodcarver is wearing a pair of loose, khaki slacks, a blue work shirt and sandals with socks. She is personable, she is warm, she is direct. She likes opera and often listens to it while she carves. She still puts in a full work week, sometimes pushing 19-hour stretches. "I do my best work after 10 p.m.," she says. "Sometimes I work until one or two in the morning. Then I have to recover"
Hall took a sabbatical the first year she lived in Colorado. "But then my hands got itchy," she says. She prefers teak over most any wood, but also enjoys carving Honduran mahogany, walnut, aged white oak and rosewood. She makes a clay model before applying tools to wood. She avoids using power tools, choosing instead to work with a large collection of gouges, v-tools and mallets. "Power tools vibrate, they're hot in your hands. And I like to use my muscles," she says.
She has experimented with other mediums, including ivory, but wood remains her passion. "I can't imagine working with metal or glass. Wood is alive and unpredictable," she says. "And there are all different kinds of wood with different textures. Once you carve it, the grain comes out — it's beautiful."
Growing up in Holland, Hall had no intention of becoming a woodcarver. "I wouldn't have taken the time to learn," she admits. But the war broke out, forcing her at age 18 to leave college where she was an art student. "The Nazis were terrorizing the cities," she says softly. "The Germans searched our homes and hundreds of people were dying from starvation."
She moved with her family to the countryside and became part of the Dutch Resistance, delivering underground literature by bicycle to farmers in the area. Had she been discovered, her life could have ended in a concentration camp.
It was during this time that she began working with her father, apprenticing as a woodcarver for the next five years. "My brother never took it up," she says. "He was the brains of the family. He knew he'd never make any real money at it."
She later studied under carvers in France and Germany, but maintains that her father, still working at 93 in Holland, is among the best.
Hall, who says she works well under pressure, worked nearly around the clock for three weeks to complete the carvings on two bi-fold, 12-foot-high doors for a synagogue in Denver. The design consists of a huge tree which spans the four panels. Hebrew letters are carved on the leaves of the tree. Hall selected mahogany for the project.
Although she has no style preference, she says she's noticed a return to art nouveau. Furniture makers are requesting art nouveau carvings on their pieces, and one craftsman, who is making Tiffany lamp shades, has asked her to design and carve the bases in art nouveau.
Other projects at various stages of completion around her shop include a walnut fireplace mantel for a client in Aspen, mahogany doors for someone in Evergreen and decorative panels for a bar in Texas. Hall and her son Wendell have been working on the mantel for two months, submitting drawings, clay models and rough carvings for client approval. They expect to finish in another month. Carving on the mahogany doors has not yet begun, but a clay model shows a Western panorama, complete with elk and eagle against a mountain backdrop.
Maintaining enthusiasm for each project is not a problem, says Hall, but the work is much more enjoyable when she likes the people she's doing it for. "If I have nice feelings, nice thoughts, it's more pleasant," she explains. "You think about the people when you carve."
A true professional, she works even when she doesn't want to and has yet to turn down a job. She says her most boring project was carving 36 identical Sinch Hope Indian figures for an Arizona bank. The repetition got to her. Her most unusual request was the carving of a display violin, strings and all, out of a solid piece of basswood.
Hall sees herself as an artist, not a craftsman: "It's creating, and not everyone can do it." Of the skill, she says, "There's more involved than just chopping wood away. You have to be able to work with your left as well as your right hand. If you can't, there will be certain cuts you cannot do." Hall is by nature right-handed. She says carving is the only thing she does with her left hand and it took some practice to become proficient at it. "Many people never do," she says, "and their work suffers. They get in all these contorted positions trying to get the right angle. They waste time."
In just three years, this woodcarver has made her mark in Colorado and is much in demand. She is passing on her technique to students of the prestigious Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass where she teaches summer workshops on Classic European Woodcarving and Advanced Carving. She is also active in the local woodworking community, serving as secretary of the Colorado Woodworkers Guild.
Still she encounters clients uneasy about her being a woman. "They're kind of skeptical," she says, obviously amazed. "They don't know if they can trust me. The last job I did, the client said, 'Can you really do that, Nora?' And here I was with all these pictures of what I've done."
No doubt, Nora Hall can do anything she puts her mind to.