Articles and Publications

A Master Carver tailors classes to her students–Carving classics runs in the family

Originally published in Woodshop News, April, 1999 — By Earl Stresak

Nora Hall's students quickly learn not to fear her title, or her list of carving accomplishments, when they attend her European Classic Carving classes at Colorado's Anderson Ranch.

A third-generation Master Carver, Hall has earned a reputation as a teacher not caught up in an elevated sense of herself, or her craft. Hall keeps instruction simple and pragmatic.

"Abilities are lost because students had the wrong teachers," said Hall. In her opinion, the wrong way to teach is by adhering to a rigid teaching plan without finding the common denominator of ability for a specific group of students.

Hall approaches a class without a plan. Using her carver's practiced powers of observation, she lets students "wrestle with the wood." This gives her time to evaluate them. On the first day of class, she moves between workbenches "sizing up student abilities."

After that she wings it, tailoring her lessons to fit the students' collective ability. "Students can give up because the work is too hard," said Hall. "I make it easy."

The roots of Hall's reputation had come from the decades spent mastering her craft. Her father taught Hall relief carving in Holland during the Nazi occupation of World War II. She was 18 at the time.

"All the boys were hiding from the Nazis," said Hall, "and my father needed help in the shop."

It was not a time for self-indulgent carving, or artistic tantrums. Steady daily production meant money, and "very early I trained myself to carve fast," said Hall.

The workshop carved furniture ordered by people from all over Europe. "Even during the war years Gothic furniture was very popular," said Hall. "We never had to go out and solicit work. It came to us from cabinetmakers."

Gothic cabinets and coffee tables were also popular in Germany, and soldiers would order them and ship them back home. The carvers also used their ingenuity to sell statues for food and money to German soldiers who believed they were buying antiques.

"We made little primitive statues (icons). We painted and stained, and did things on them and then buried them in the Dutch soil," Hall recalled. "The soil was pretty wet, and we'd bury them for a couple of weeks. When they came out, they looked old. We fooled them."

After the war, Hall continued to hone her craft as a wood carver in Holland. She also married and had three children.

The family moved to the United States in 1956, settling in Phoenix. Realizing she would have to start again to build her business, since her work was not known here, Hall sought carving work, but found the pickings slim.

"There was not that much interest in carving or antiques" in the United States at the time, said Hall. "Furniture was upholstered. It was a very different style than in Holland. There, furniture was still carved in a lot of wood."

Still her occupation drew the attention of a Phoenix newspaper which did a story on Hall. It helped land her her first traditional wood carving job here, the cover for a book of remembrances commissioned by a Presbyterian church.

That job, however, did not create a windfall of other opportunities.

With little work around, and three children to care for, Hal put carving on the backburner and settled into her role as homemaker.

During the 1960s and '70s, antiques came back in vogue here, Hall noted, which created a demand for her style of carving. She took advantage of the situation and started carving seriously again from the family's new home in California. Her reputation grew rapidly from there.

"From then on I had work all the time, I had orders all the time," she said.

Hall's work has been commissioned from buyers throughout the United States. Be it an exquisite fireplace mantle or a huge wan panel, Hall has been commissioned for stage and movie sets, churches, synagogues, wineries, and corporate clients. Her private client list includes residents of Colorado's exclusive Aspen community.

She and her son, Wendell Langeberg, now work in their Cloverdale, Ore., shop.

While beginning to work again in Southern California, Hall revived another long dormant skill, teaching. She had taught carving classes in Holland but hadn't taught since moving to the United States, until she was asked to teach an adult education class in carving for a public school system.

Now, along with her classes at Anderson Ranch, she teaches seminars around Oregon and is slated to teach at a new program in Maine in 1994.

Hall's teaching expertise comes from refining the trial-and-error style that made her a master carver, a style she now incorporates in the classroom.

"Every class is different. It depends on the student. You can't have a system — because for some students a system just doesn't work," she said. "I have the whole class in mind. If what I'm doing is too hard, I go a different direction."

Some people are ahead of others and some struggle with simple things, she said, but the speed of a student's progress is of little importance. She doesn't believe carving should be learned on a timetable.

If a beginning carver is happy just doing circles an day, that's fine with Hall. "They catch up very quickly with students doing harder things," she said.

The key to becoming a good carver is working with the tools constantly, said Hall. Progress then comes naturally. Just the handling of the tools builds confidence and technique. After hours of working with the gouges, things start to happen.

"You have to go through your arm and hand to the tool," Hall explained. "As long as they are handling the tools, they get better and better -- then the design begins. They get the feeling. What you have in your hand and your heart eventually goes through to the wood."

Desire is the most important tool a beginning carver can possess, said Hall. One can take up carving with a picture in the mind. That mental photo says "that's what I want to do," said Hall. "Otherwise you start because your husband or wife pushed you into it."

You can see that "picture" in the difference between one carver and another, said Hall.

"I carve because I have to carve, like a writer has to write," she said. "So even if there was no demand for it, I would still carve." Perhaps carvers develop that sort of passion because of man's primitive attraction to wood. The wood is something people can control, she explained.

"Wood is basic to our earliest civilization," said Hall, "and everything goes back to it." Wood has "a life of its own."

Wood's ability to pass along the illusion of being alive is perhaps why people have such strong attraction to good carving. People see a good piece of wood carving and say, "This has feeling, this is art, this is alive," she said.

Hall recalls an exacting mantle she carved for a client in Aspen. The piece was large and the work precise. The client frequently traveled to Italy, constantly viewed classical carvings there, and had a certain vision for the piece.

The challenge for Hall and her son was to transform that mental image into wood -- to remain faithful to the client's larger-than-life vision of the piece.

The moment of truth came after the mantle was shipped to Aspen and installed in the client's home. The client studied the finished mantle for a long time in silence.

"The guy was sitting there for an hour looking at it," before saying anything, remembers Hall. When he finally spoke, it was worth the anxious wait.

"That's the essence of civilization!" he proclaimed. Hall knew she'd succeeded in what some find impossible -- taking an intangible, wisp of an idea, and turning it into a reality one can see and touch. "When the wood comes alive," said Hall, "that's what makes the artist happy -- happier than anything else, I think."

"We like it when people suddenly light up and see the beauty. The most happy moments in my life were when I accomplished something that I said I couldn't do any better."