BANGOR, Maine — The oak tree tattoo that spreads over Abram Barrett’s right arm is an expression of what he’s all about: wood. He’s actually not fond of working with oak, but he considers it to be the mother of all trees, stately and solid.
He and his wife, Torianne, of Eddington are the Maine Discovery Museum’s first artists in residence, and they will be passing on their love for carving to children during a workshop starting 2 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at the museum. In the days leading up to the workshop, the couple will be carving at the museum under the public eye.
The Barretts moved about the large, carpeted storefront on Tuesday, quietly setting up carvings as people bustled by on the sidewalk outside the storefront window.
A shiny, black ebony pendant dangled from Abram’s crisp white button-up shirt as he shuffled samples of Cyprus, rosewood and ash. The speckled feather on his black bowler hat swayed as he examined the wood. Torianne sat on the floor, sanding wooden spoons and lining them up on a table.
“They’re all one of a kind,” said Abram as he looked over the spoons. “We use kiln-dried cherry for those.”
Arranging displays of wooden utensils, jewelry and sculptures has become routine for Abram and Torianne, who call their art business “Soul of Wood.” Last year, they participated in 40 Maine shows, including Thursday Market Downtown Bangor, the Downtown Bangor Artwalk, KahBang Music & Art Festival, the Waterfront Concert Series and the American Folk Festival.
“We just love the whole barter system and the idea of keeping locally made stuff around and showing people how special it is,” said Abram.
They are looking forward to this weekend’s workshop, where they’ll teach children how to carve spoons using safe materials and tools: balsa foam — a light material that carves like butter and paints like wood — and wooden scoops and tools made by Abram. Each child will return home with their own balsa foam creation and a Soul of Wood spoon that they can sand with their new sandpaper kit.
Rolled in a tool apron is Abram’s faded chisel acquired from a yard sale beside a number of newer tools, including a Japanese spoon chisel.
With their safer wooden instruments, the children will learn the movements of carving, and they’ll get an idea of the kinds of trees that grow around the world. Abram is preparing a board displaying 80 types of wood that were donated to him by his chief wood supplier, Bill from Franklin. Bill has collected wood from around the world while working on a merchant marine vessel. He trades with Abram — wood for sculptures — and occasionally gives him large pieces of rare wood such as South American snakewood.
Abram discovered his love for wood eight years ago while staying with his father, an industrial arts teacher, in Machias. When he wasn’t helping his father paint houses, Abram experimented with scrap pieces of wood in his father’s workshop.
“From my first sculptural spoon, everything has pushed me in this direction,” said Abram. “Being here is a really big step for us in teaching people how to do this. If you can instill it in a child at that age, they can be the next amazing sculptor.”
In addition to teaching children the technical aspects of the carving, Abram will talk about the importance of nature and self-expression in art.
“I’ll teach them about respecting what they do and tell them that I never go out and harvest a wild tree. There are already millions of pieces of gorgeous wood that have been chopped down and drying for years,” Abram said.
Abram walks the forest to find fallen trees and admire burls. When he works with the wood, a relationship is formed and he communicates ideas through its changing form.
“It’s just showing someone that you can express what’s inside your body in a particular way — it’s a pretty big idea for a kid to get,” Abram said. Nevertheless, the Barretts will try to show children and their families what they mean by the soul of wood.
Torianne entered the picture two years ago at Beltek Festival in Belmont, where she was selling hula hoops beside Abram and his Soul of Wood wares. That fall, Abram taught Torianne how to make her first wooden spoon.
She now makes walnut and zebra wood pendants and earrings, spoons and spatulas, and has an eye for perfection.
“The wood is so thin [in her pendants] that you’re sanding your fingernails off,” she said as she polished a spoon with mineral oil and gazed through the glass display case at their large inventory of jewelry, some of which have been inlaid with silver and brass mosaic pins.
Torianne said she will let Abram, who is the expert, do most of the talking at the workshop.
“I’ll butterfly around,” she said with grin. “If there’s a parent who has one kid who isn’t old enough to carve or something, I’ll help them color in the cover of [Abram’s] book.”
“Have You Seen My Wooden Spoon?,” a children’s book, is Abram’s newest project. He’s writing and illustrating a story about a boy who dreams adventures with a wooden spoon, which he uses as a helmet and spaceship, among other things.
“The residency program is an opportunity for us to bring in interesting, different mediums,” said Trudy Plummer, Maine Discovery Museum education director.
In spring 2010, the Quimby Family Foundation accepted the museum’s grant proposal to fund the pilot residency program. In addition to Abram and Torianne, three artists — fiber sculptor Tree Heckler, printmaker Kris Sader and photographer Karen Littlefield — will complete residencies at the museum over the next three months.
“If we get good response from the community, we’ll definitely find other funding and keep this program going,” Plummer said.
The Downtown Bangor Arts Collaborative is providing administrative assistance in the program and formulated a list of prospective artists for residencies.
“This is our first partnership together,” said Liz Grandmaison, chairwoman of the DBAC. “Along with the art walk, this is the sort of thing we really want to do more of; partnering with arts groups downtown for projects that maybe one of us doesn’t have the capacity to do alone, but certainly two or three groups can do together.”
Since the artists in residence are set up in the storefront, visitors don’t need to pay for museum admission to view their work — and there’s a lot to see.
One of Abram’s first sculptural spoons, titled “Slither” and carved out of lilac root, sits on a pedestal in the middle of the room. On a display case, perches “Burst into Song,” a cherry burl with winglike appendages spread wide. And behind the display case glass is a creation in the making — an electric guitar carved out of a Thuya burl from Morocco, a rare wood that is no longer exported.
Abram’s next project is to complete a set of four elemental spoons, designed to express fire, water, air and earth. The spoons are being crafted on commission for spoon collector Norman Stevens and will be carved from Abram’s most precious woods, including rare pink ivory.
“Pink ivory is luminescent under black lights,” he said. “And I just learned that the head of the Zulu Tribe [of Africa] made the head of his spears with it. If he caught someone else with the wood, the consequence was death.”
Abram will take his chances.
The carving workshop at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 26, is recommended for ages 6 and up, though the museum never turns a child away. Cost is $10 for members and $12 for nonmembers. The class is limited to 15 children, but a second session will be created if more than 15 children sign up. Registration is open until the first workshop begins. For information, visit www.mainediscoverymuseum.org or call 262-7200. For information about Soul of Wood, visit www.soulofwood.com.