Carving a future by preserving the past

Bobbi Sistrunk

The term “masterpiece” is not lightly attached to a work of art. Rather it is reserved for true quality of craftsmanship and design of a piece.

It is an apt description of the pieces produced by Halifax wood carver Nicholas Lonborg.

Once just a young man with an interest in learning the proper way to introduce blade to block, Lonborg has become a master in his own right.

Twenty-five years ago Lonborg’s mother Rosemary gave him a set of lessons with long-time carver Paul McCarthy of Scituate Harbor.

Lonborg said his mother always tried to give him “art-related gifts” because she knew her son had an artistic streak.

What neither of them realized was this particular gift would be the beginning of a life-long love of the craft.

“I liked it so much I started an informal apprenticeship,” Lonborg said.

During his junior high and high school years Lonborg worked with the carver, soaking up every bit of information he could. But the skills he was learning would take a hiatus when he entered the Navy and served for four years.

Lonborg said he would find time to carve on board the USS Truett while traveling the world serving his country.

The Desert Storm veteran would eventually take advantage of the GI Bill and attend UMass Amherst as an art major and sculptor. He also took courses in botany and other subjects that interested him and earned a degree in fine arts.

He not only has an artistic streak but is also an avid gardener and outdoorsman. His backyard gives him ample opportunity to study nature and master the curves and lines needed to replicate some of Mother Nature’s greatest creations through his own skills.

Quarterboards are his specialty, but Lonborg is also adept at unleashing a mighty eagle or a delicate flower from its captive home inside a piece of wood.

Quarterboards are rectangular, wooden signs once used to name ships. Oftentimes, they were the sole source of identification of shipwrecks. But the ornate signs came into favor with shore residents as a way to identify their homes. They are now popular across the globe. Many a fine home can be seen sporting a beautiful carved and gold-leafed sign bearing a family name or perhaps the name of a grand estate. Chances are, if you spot one locally, it was created by Lonborg.

Nantucket Island is one of Lonborg’s best spots to find clients. He had spent summers there during college working with another local carver to create many of the quarterboards that still hang there today.

His work is seen across the country. Galleries on the Cape and Nantucket sell his creations, as do others in Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee and on the West Coast.

The adopted son of 1967 Red Sox Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg was born in South Korea.   He came to the United States as a seven-year-old and spent many of his formative years in Scituate where his father currently practices dentistry. Nick’s craftsmanship is seen in the sign identifying his father’s practice along with many other businesses on the harbor.

His shop, located in Halifax, is filled with the scents of fresh-cut wood, paint and warmth. A wood stove burns welcomingly in the foyer to greet customers on chilly mornings.

Several projects in various stages of completion adorn the walls, tables and workbenches of the studio.

Traditional carved signs can withstand several years of weather but eventually need to be refurbished. Nick occasionally has an opportunity to take one of his earlier creations and bring it back to life as if new.

Students gather in eager hope of replicating the perfection that the master teaches.

As Nick puts chisel to wood, in the style of long-ago carvers, the transformation is almost magical; from a pine board comes a beautiful plaque proclaiming a family name, replete with adornments such as scallop shells or flowers on the ends and bold 24-karat gold-leaf letters. He uses only hand tools to create these masterpieces.

He makes it look easy. But the time spent from beginning, through the carving process, several coats of paint and the application of gold leaf takes many hours. Only those with exquisite taste and appreciation for handcrafts can truly understand each piece’s value.

To date, Nick’s most prestigious accolades come from an exhibit in which he was invited to participate at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.

Keepers of the Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts is the brainchild of state folklorists and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The exhibit features arts and crafts created by the most talented artisans across the state and is available at the museum until February 2009.

The exhibit seeks to stir interest in ancient as well as folk traditions from across the globe by highlighting the artistic heritage of local artisans.

“I didn’t really take it seriously when they first called me,” Nick said. “But it really is an honor. This is a wonderful show. I met some very interesting cats up there.”

Nick said he was very impressed with the level of quality of the exhibitors as well as the amount of research that went into the project.

“The whole experience was enlightening. I met so many really interesting people. It really opened my eyes to other artists in New England,” he said.

A full color book depicting the works of Nick and other Bay State artists is available at the museum Web site.

“If you’re going to read something this summer, why not reads about our local artists?” Nick said.

For further information log on to lonborgwoodcarving.com or visit the studio located at 568 Plymouth St., Halifax, call 781-29347654, or e-mail notypine@yahoo.com.

For information on the Keepers of the Tradition exhibit, log on to www.nationalheritagemuseum.org and click on the “exhibitions” link.