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Stories in faces, spirits in wood

Paul Heringer, the carver, starts his day like any other at a wooded campground on the Coast.

Paul Heringer, the carver, starts his day like any other at a wooded campground on the Coast. He spreads his array of chisels and gouges on the picnic table beside his RV, places a dropcloth on the earth to catch shavings, dons heavy leather gloves to protect his hands and spends up to 30 to 40 hours sculpting a character face from wood.

He has just finished a fierce Norse man who scowls from under a headdress of horns. The head is polished smooth in natural colours, although some simple stain in red and black has been added to his headband and collar. Also on the picnic table is the next project - a block of wood from which a shape is emerging - that of a native man who will wear a headband of grizzly bear claws. On the West Coast, we tend to think of wood carving as a First Nations tradition, tribal images hewn from cedar. But Heringer's works are completely different. He sculpts weathered, wrinkled faces with interesting noses: soldiers, old mountain men, Vikings, sometimes an Indian chief. But he is not native and employs no First Nations imagery. He is simply fascinated by faces. In a crowd, he's always scouting for the next model. "The hardest thing is to perfect the human face," Heringer says.

He excels on two of the most difficult qualities: proportion and detail. The busts, though usually only about 12 inches high, demonstrate an acute sense of an actual head's proportion, and the detail, particularly around the eyes, is achieved by using a tiny micro gouge. Heringer uses only top quality, Swiss-made, hand tools. No power tools, no chain saws, no bandsaws, even though the gouges have slipped and cut his hands many times.

"I'm a perfectionist," he says. "My work must be flawless." Basswood, that grows in B.C.'s Interior, is his wood of choice. It's between hard and soft and holds detail well. In addition to the busts, Heringer also carves walking sticks, preferably ones made of diamond willow, a wood that, as a result of disease, dies on the inside but grows new wood on the outside. The result is a branch with gnarly figure. He slots his carved faces or writhing snakes into the whorls, then stains or varnishes the finished product. The Kamloops carver arrived on the Coast over a month ago, after hearing how many artists lived and worked here. Heringer first became interested in carving in high school after watching an uncle make walking sticks. He taught himself by buying books on the subject and decided to jump right in. He's always been a great fan of the outdoors and working with his hands, he explains, but an accident left him with a bad back that doesn't allow physical labour. Carving filled an employment gap. He took to travelling around B.C., living up north near Terrace and in other rural communities, but he now wants to make a home on the Coast. On arrival, he rented a tiny studio in Gibsons which he calls Spirits in Wood Gallery, as a place to show and acquire a market for his work. Heringer's busts and walking sticks can be found at this studio in The Trading Post in Lower Gibsons, open Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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