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Voices Fall-Winter, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Gary Rathbone: Wooden Whimsy” by Mary Zwolinski here.
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Volume 27
Fall-Winter
2001
Voices

Gary Rathbone:  Wooden Whimsy

Gary Rathbone was born in 1942 on Staten Island and moved at a young age to Cooperstown, New York, where his father was a caretaker for a wealthy family from the area. His father maintained Cooperstown’s Clark family estate, and when their own home on Otsego Lake burned, they lived for a short time in one of the Clark mansions. Gary remembers that the attic of the house was filled with children’s toys, and he spent many hours playing with them. As a boy scout he took up woodcarving, making neckerchief slides and other things found in Boys Life magazine. In his late twenties, he began carving items to give as gifts to friends, trying to match individual personalities to the pieces. Today he lives outside Cooperstown in Burlington Flats.
98.6 - 1992 Rathbone woodcarving
“98.6” — 1992

The Cooperstown-Otsego Lake area provides him with plenty of wood for his carving, and the Baseball Hall of Fame provides an audience for his baseball-inspired carvings, including Hall of Famer Joe Garagiola and film director Penny Marshall in town for the filming of A League of Her Own. Both own pieces made by Gary. But in 1988, Gary went to see a woodcarving demonstration at Cooperstown’s Smithy Gallery by Lavern Kelley of Oneonta, and that has perhaps influenced Gary’s woodcarving career the most. Kelley, a dairy farmer, had been carving most of his life and was gaining a national reputation as a folk artist. Gary took a pocketful of carved hands to show Lavern. The two spent time looking at and talking about technique and style.

In 1988, with support from the New York State Council on the Arts, the two began a formal apprenticeship that allowed Gary to learn in depth Lavern’s techniques, philosophies and styles. Gary continues carving. His work is humorous, satirical, and nostalgic, and his subjects range from politics and history to popular culture. Many of his pieces capture the simple moments of various occupations, such as wheelwrights and shovel makers. The piece "Greta" is a tribute to the lawyer and commentator who covered the O.J. Simpson trial on television.
Even the Score:  Gary Rathbone woodcarving
“Even the Score” — 1992

Gary Rathbone’s woodcarvings tell stories about places and people living and long dead, who lead simple lives. The relationship he shared with Lavern Kelley is evident in his work, even if their subjects and visions were different. It is clear from Gary’s work that learning from a mentor is about more than simply copying technique and style and that learning can happen anywhere. Learning can happen in the car heading to a demonstration, talking informally about life, or it can happen while sitting and carving with old jackknives, not talking at all. But the long-term effects of those relationships can make a difference over the span of a lifetime. Gary Rathbone’s work is both a tribute to his former mentor and the acknowledgment of his very own personal vision of the world around him.


 





Mary Zwolinski is Folk and Community Arts Director for the Arts Center of the Capital Region and a member of the board of directors for the New York Folklore Society.


His work is humorous, satirical, and nostalgic, and his subjects range from politics and history to popular culture. Many of his pieces capture the simple moments of various occupations, such as wheelwrights and shovel makers.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Fall-Winter 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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