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18th century craft gets a 21st-century boost from Johns Island's Mary May

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Carving wood by hand is so old school that the craft, on a professional level, could be considered endangered in the Southeast.

But a professional woodcarver on Johns Island has seized technology and social media not only to thrive but to keep the craft alive for another generation.

Mary May is in high demand these days carving designs for historic restoration projects and furniture in Charleston, but her reputation is international.

Her skills have landed her on several episodes of PBS's "The Woodwright's Shop with Roy Underhill" and she's leading workshops around the country and world. She limits herself to traveling only one weekend a month, but admits that it could be weekly.

But that demand wasn’t always the case.

Well into her chosen profession, May would often go months without a commissioned work, especially during the recession of 2008. That’s when she decided to diversify by starting an online school: Mary May’s School of Traditional Woodcarving.

In her small carving studio, in the back of an unassuming home on 3 acres off busy section of River Road, May has three cameras trained on a table. She carves and talks while doing so.

As of now, she has 3,500 students across the globe who pay for instruction and instructional videos, nearly 300 of them.

And if those numbers aren’t impressive, consider her Instagram account.

In a mere two years, she has more than 18,600 followers on “marymaywoodcarving” while following less than 500 herself. She doesn’t post a lot. Only 317 times as of Tuesday, but recent posts of her carvings have garnered more than 500 likes each.

Not a millennial

May, who recently turned 50, was urged to start the Instagram account by some young adults at a workshop in Maine.

“They told me I’d have 300 to 400 followers within a week. I was skeptical, but sure enough, they were right,” says May, noting that her work is more conducive to photo-dependent Instagram. Her Facebook following does not draw the same numbers.

May, a Midwesterner who moved to the Charleston area in 1998, says Instagram goes beyond helping to market her work and school. The self-described hermit says she enjoys the immediate feedback, calling it “exciting and encouraging,” that that it motivates her to stay in the studio a bit longer than usual.

And while May says most of her students seem to be retired engineers, she also sees younger people wanting to learn about carving wood by hand.

“There’s a hunger for doing something with your hands other than typing,” says May, noting the disappearance of wood shop and home economics from school curricula. “The next generation is rebelling against the computer generation.”

Local evidence that people want to learn about carving, May notes, is the popularity of the new Charleston Wood Guild and continued interest in the Lowcountry Woodcarvers group.

Sam Sprouse, founder and principal instructor at the Charleston Woodworking School, describes May as "big-time."

"She's a rock star in the woodworking community, not only in Charleston but around the world ... She's an amazing talent," says Sprouse, noting her seemingly effortless ability to carve very difficult acanthus leaves.

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He adds her talent as a carver is matched by her ability to teach the craft.

A life passion

Growing in Illinois and Wisconsin, she has fond memories of hanging out with her carpenter father in his woodshop.

“I loved the smell of 2-by-4 in pine as soon as they are sawed,” says May, who made her first dollhouse at the age of 11.

But May credits two other experiences for encouraging her and her siblings to follow their dreams and passions.

“When I was 5 and then 11, my parents decided to build a boat and took all five of us down the Mississippi River. We didn’t have a lot of money … They didn’t do it prove anything. They basically lived their dream and we just happened to be dragged along with it,” says May.

“I think what it did was kind of instill in us don’t let anything stop you from doing what you want to do … We’re all doing eccentric stuff.”

Making luck

May studied art at the University of Minnesota, gravitating toward ceramics but “knew I wanted to do something medieval.”

While traveling in Europe, she fell in love with carving, not realizing that teachers were few and far between. Back in Minnesota, she thumbed through the Yellow Pages, the Google of the time, and found a master Greek carver, Konstantinos Papadakis. He helped her learn a “very, very ornate” Greek orthodox style of carving.

"I started by going over to Europe and England. I had the opportunity to go the mainland and Germany, France and all these places. I fell in love with the carving. I was in college. I studied abroad for one semester and then just traveling. At the time, I didn’t realize it was being taught. I wanted to learn it."

A woodcarver's home

After that, she tried to set up shop in central Missouri but there was little demand for woodcarving. She was lured to Charleston because of historic restoration opportunities.

Since then, she’s done furniture restoration, work on fireplaces and other wood details, as well as signs at the Dock Street Theatre and slate gravestones at the Huguenot church.

Richard Marks of Richard Marks Restorations has worked with May for nearly 15 years, primarily with historic furniture restoration and reproductions.

"As far as the Southeast is concerned, she's one of the top carvers in the region," says Marks, noting that she's filling a void left by a long tradition of carving in Charleston.

Marks and May are currently working on a project to restore a fireplace at 1770s-era house on Legare Street. Using marks on the fireplace left from the original Rococo-style carving, the two surveyed several other existing carvings in Charleston to recreate the fireplace carving.

Marks says that May was a good carver when she first arrived in Charleston, but since spending time here, she's become even more proficient.

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.

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