Carving out an Artist’s Life
David Tremaine started out in college with the notion that he wanted to become an engineer. But he also wanted to be on the wrestling team, so Dave had to take some elective courses to boost his grade point average.
The rest is history.
“I had to take an art course, and I really liked it,” Dave said. “From that point on, I decided I was going to be a better artist than an engineer. I changed my whole curriculum.”
“They Believe In Us” commemorates Dave’s respect for war veterans.
Today, decades later, Dave’s wood sculptures will be on display at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center as part of a show called Wood Whispers that will run through the whole month of April, with an opening reception on Sunday, April 7. Wood, it turns out, whispered pretty quickly to him in college.
“When I entered these art classes, I was a greenhorn,” Dave said. I started out with clay when I took a sculpting class, and then I quickly turned to wood I was in class with kids that majored in art, so I had a lot of ground to make up. I knew that I could work just as hard as anybody though. I decided to pick something that hardly anyone wanted to get their hands dirty with.”
Dave ended up getting a bachelors degree in art education from Adams State College in Colorado and a masters degree in art education from Elmira College in New York. His first wood sculpture was a Tiki God, which has a special place on a shelf in his wood shop today.
The gentle human gesture can be seen in the fine detail of the hands.
Dave spent thirty-six years as an art teacher, teaching classes at all levels from elementary to graduate courses at Elmira College. He taught within the Corning City School District at Northside Blodgett Middle School and at East and West High Schools. He taught mostly ceramics because he felt that it was a material that kids could get in up to their elbows and really have some fun with it.
Quite a busy man, Dave enjoys downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, bicycling, kayaking, and karate. But he always turns back to his sculpting.
Dave’s home, shared with his wife Diane, is filled from floor to ceiling with carvings. What doesn’t fit in the home finds a place in Dave’s wood shop, built in his yard after he retired, up on a forested hill in Beaver Dams, New York. Wood chips litter the floor of his shop, and a hole decorates the ceiling—damage left from a piece of wood shot up by his equipment.
“I don’t patch it,” Dave said. “I keep it as a reminder to myself that what I do can be dangerous.”
Dave uses a lathe to carve some of his pieces, a machine that rotates the piece of wood in question. Carving and sanding tools give the spinning piece its shape.
Other pieces start with the big gun, a chainsaw that cuts out the basic shape. A variety of mallet and chisel tools and a Dremel tool with a grinder attachment take it from there.
One of the pieces that visitors to the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center will see is “They Believe In Us,” a piece Dave created to commemorate his respect for war veterans.
One of Dave’s favorite pieces: “The Spirit of the Rider.”
“It is a solid piece. It is not glued together. The two heads were separate branches coming out. It was a 600-pound tree stump, and now it weighs about 200 pounds,” Dave said. “The piece took over 1,500 hours to carve, which was over a year and a half period. I probably put three hours a day on this on average.”
One of his favorite pieces is his newest one, “The Spirit of the Rider,” of a rider gripping the bike handle bars with an eagle on his back.
“I like to bike myself. I did about 7,500 miles last summer. This is the feeling of a biker when you get several miles under your belt and you’re flying down the road,” Dave said. “This is what that feels like.”
Many of Dave’s sculptures are human figures, such as Native Americans, Vikings, and faces.
“I would say I do romantic type subjects. When using a human figure in any type of gesture, showing any type of mood or compassion, it is romantic,” Dave said.
Dave works with mostly native woods, such as aborvitae, maple, hickory, apple, cherry, and walnut woods.
“I treat the wood with a special chemical that combines with the moisture in the wood to form a stable compound so the wood doesn’t dry out. What it does is that it supplies enough natural oils within the wood that won’t evaporate, so that the wood doesn’t splinter,” Dave explained.
Dave shows his attention to detail, pointing out the hollowed inside of the sculpture. This technique reduces the weight and allows the wood to dry, which prevents cracking.
“I am stubborn,” says Dave of wood that is decaying or split. “I think most wood workers would have put certain pieces in the fire. But it might make it. It has a lot of character.”
He pointed to a vase-like sculpture he is in the middle of carving, and said, “That piece was a disaster. It had three splits in it. I put a lot of time into it so far though. I call it one of my survivor pieces.”
“When I finish a piece, I like to step back and take a look at it. But then I get antsy and want to start another piece. It gives me a sense that my next idea is possible because, well, I did that,” Dave said, while pointing at some of his latest works.
Dave is excited about the Gmeiner show, but for him, showing and selling his work is not the ultimate success.
“I have done a lot of shows over the years. It is always a lot of fun. I don’t have any kind of fantasy of getting rich,” Dave said. If I sell a piece, great, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love working with the wood. My time in the shop is great time.”