June 25, 2018
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Morrill couple revives craft business

By Lynn Ascrizzi, Special to the BDN

Belugas. Bowheads. Humpbacks. Orcas. Grays. These majestic whales and eight other species of the seagoing mammals, including right and blue whales, are the artful subjects of a new line of painted woodcarvings created by Chip Slimak and Rose Kern of Morrill.

Their home-based folk art business is called Mere Whimsey. She paints the whales by hand; he carves each one out of basswood, a finely grained, durable wood, perfect for carving.

Created in lifelike detail, down to brow wrinkles, bumps and barnacles, the whales are designed to hang on walls alone or grouped as “pods.” Each graceful creature also bears the warm chisel and knife facets that are the hallmark of hand-carved artwork.

And, no two whales are precisely alike; each piece is signed and dated.

“From a carver’s viewpoint, it’s fascinating to carve whales. They have smooth, organic forms. They’re not manmade, but forms from nature. It feels good to carve them,” Slimak said.

But it is not just the pleasing aesthetic aspect of whales that compels the artists. Whales represent a species they love, amazing mammals whose existence is threatened by commercial whaling, environmental pollution and climate change, they said.

“It’s the idea of the impact on our oceans in the world and how it affects these creatures. The ocean temperature is rising,” Kern said.

“Most whales live part of the year in the Arctic or Antarctic,” Slimak added. “Some whales, like the narwhal and pilot whale, live under the ice. How can they live when the ice is gone?”

This is one reason why they are donating 2 percent of Mere Whimsey whale sales to benefit The American Cetacean Society, the oldest cetacean society in the world, dedicated to whale and dolphin conservation, education and research.

Whale tale

Slimak and Kern, who have been married for 28 years, create their whale art in a brightly-lit workshop studio, located in the lower level of their spacious, craftsman-style home built on 5 acres on Weymouth Road.

On a recent June morning, more than 100 newly carved whales carefully were stacked on workshop shelves. Their tails, protruding over the edges of the shelving, created a whimsical pattern all their own.

Rows of paint cans also lined workshop shelves.

“I use a water-based latex paint. This is the first primer coat,” Kern said, as she laid a gray-blue base coat on a humpback carving. Its final finish will have a multitoned, natural look, she said.

Whales with a lot of black, like orcas and pilots, are painted in solid colors. All whales are given glass eyes to add “a bit of glint,” they said.

The new whale art represents a revival of their 30-year craft enterprise of the same name. The cottage industry, which began in Connecticut in 1979, offered about 60 different kinds of items carved in a whimsical folk art style — from suns, moons, stars and wooden horses with straw tails, to a variety of birds, dogs and wide-eyed cats — and even a Noah’s Ark.

In the past four years, however, the craft enterprise had slowed to a trickle. Kern was working locally, full time; Slimak was preoccupied with designing and building their current home — down to every handcrafted detail. They couldn’t put their full energy into the business.

But the fires of creativity got rekindled in a completely unexpected way.

Last year, Kern lost her full-time job at Moss Inc. in Belfast where she had worked for 12 years as a purchasing agent.

“It was a shock. We were in the throes of building the house and dependent upon my income. It was quite devastating,” she said.

While she looked anxiously for new employment, the bills mounted. They felt compelled to relaunch the craft business.

This time, however, they decided to specialize in whales.

“In the past, they were one of our most popular lines,” she said.

Slimak dived into the project and fine-tuned the carvings.

“I’ve improved the design. I went over details for accuracy. Now, the series is more to scale,” he said.

After successfully jump-starting the business, there was more good news. This past spring, Kern was hired part-time as a registrar at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. Her work schedule gives her flexible time for the craft business.

The couple discovered that the new business required new strategies. For instance, a big part of the startup involved the creation of their recently launched website, merewhimsey.com, designed by Bonneville Consulting of Belfast.

They are still “tweaking” the site to make it more accessible to browsers, Slimak and Kern said.

“Just having a website is not enough. We’re learning how to add ‘entryways’” she said, of the keywords that help guide the right Internet browsers to a site.

“It’s called ‘search optimization,’” she said, a term that refers to improving the quality and volume of Web page traffic.

“We see the whales in terms of decorator and also educational items,” she noted. “If it goes into a child’s room, it’s both educational and decorative.”

Kern is amazed at how well-informed many children are about whales. She recalled with amusement how children would react to the earlier line of whale carvings they had on display at craft fairs.

“I loved the kids’ fascination with whales as they looked at our display booth. So often, their mothers would say: ‘Oh Johnny, look at the fish!’ And the kids would say: ‘They’re not fish, Mom. They’re mammals.”

For whale enthusiasts who want to know more, each carving comes with a sheet of information about the nature and habits of the species, she said.

Although focusing on direct sales, they are also exploring wholesale markets. Their whale art is available at Maine Gathering in Camden and the Purple Baboon in Belfast.

The pair is also looking into other venues, such as natural history museums, whale organizations and other fine craft stores in Maine and elsewhere.

“In the past, we used to sell our folk carvings in other states and all over the world,” Kern said.

Depending upon the species, their direct-sale whale prices range from $26 to $49 per carving. Sizes vary from 11 inches for the pilot whale to 26 inches for the blue whale. Larger carvings can be made to order.

“We wanted to make something affordable,” Kern said.

They hope that, in some small way, their craftsmanship will help people appreciate the great beauty and vulnerability of the real-life whales they admire.

“If you go on a whale watch, all you might get to see is a tail or a fin. You don’t get to appreciate the spectacular totality of a creature the size of a giant oak tree swimming in the ocean. Nothing can compare to that,” Slimak said.

Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer and lives in Freedom.

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