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Tom Otterness, The Lewis Chess Men and Why We Should All Carve  


My son and I went to The Cloisters to see the Lewis chess men( no pictures allowed). To get there we had to change trains at 14th Street and 8th Ave and we were once more rewarded with a chance to look at the wonderful, cheerful, public art of Tom Otterness. I could not help but take a picture of this giraffe eying a case of oranges. Okay, the oranges are not part of the sculpture and the young woman who rested her box of oranges on the railing while waiting for a train was more than happy to move the oranges when I wanted to take a picture, but I assured her the oranges made the picture even better.

Forty minutes later, at The Cloisters, my son announced that the Lewis Chess set wasn't worth the trouble of going uptown. I can understand that, they are very small and it's a little anti-climatic. But I thought them wonderful little sculptures. The Lewis chess men are a collection of 12th century carved chess pieces that were found on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. The little carvings are wonderful and full of whimsy, charm, and a distraction from the game itself.

Later when my son got over the fact that the pieces didn't move magically like they did in Harry Potter he too found charm in them.

And that's the point of decorating surfaces and public carving. It's perfectly fine to carve for yourself. For me it's a challenge that I am just beginning to undertake. If nobody every sees anything I ever carve that's fine as long as I think I have spend my time well. But up to the early part of the 20th century carving was one of the most important methods of giving a surface interest and when carving and sculpture are at their best the work comes alive and communicates with us. The extremely poor picture(below) of a face making faces under a church pew (now in the Cloisters) might not have any real practical purpose but I saw it, my son saw it. We stuck our fingers in our mouths and made faces back at the face and we were in on the joke, and for a few moments a carving from half a millennium ago emotionally connected with us. How much better is that than just a plain boring surface with no message for us on it?
Just a thought. When you go to a museum (or anywhere) and see great stuff, admire the craft and think how you would learn to do work of that caliber. But most of all look at the work. Those faces were once people, that young lady with the basket is smiling at you even if she is promised to Sir Simon. The flowers are in bloom and the fruit is ready to be picked. The horses are saddled and the hunt is on.

Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 6
02/28/2012Lewis E. Ward, Figure in the Wood 
You had a nice day with your son.
The name for that type of carving is misericord. Only know about them form my study of carvings and possibly seeing them at the Metropolitan. The woodcarvers got to be very expressive on these. Here is a link.
02/28/2012Mitch Wilson 
Wow, what astonishing chess pieces. Love the eyes. I'll have to remember to send you a picture of my chess set, of which I have played only one game on, over thirty years ago. The Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology.
Hi Joel,

I love the cloisters...the setting is fabulous, the cloisters themselves peaceful and thought provoking (to one's self). I've seen the Lewis men before over in Europe, they're remarkable! To imagine, they've lasted a thousand years! Doesn't hurt they were buried away for centuries, but still.....

Misericords are great fun! Most of the churches in England have them, and it's fun to seek them out......would make a great book, if not already done!

Thanks for sharing your trip with us!

Misericords do have a purpose. They are found under the tilting seats in the choirs and make a little ledge to rest their butts when choristers are standing with the seat tilted back. Google "misericord" images and there are some spectacular examples.
02/28/2012David Craig 
I think the thing to also remember when in a museum is that not only the sculptures represent real people but the creators were everyday folk as well. Many not famous at the time nor even exceptionally wealthy, just ones that wanted to liven up a piece of their furniture or pieces on a game board. In the era of obsession with fame and riches, it never hurts to be reminded that art was truly created just for the sake of art.
02/28/2012Tom Moeller 
In 1989 I made a spit-in-your-hand-shake deal, with a distant cousin of my new wife, who was a local artist. I was to make him a stained glass chess board and he would make me a stone/resin copy of the Lewis chessmen. He had obtained a set of molds that had been cast from the originals, or so he said. While he may have gotten the better deal in terms of man hours as the board wound up with 441 pieces, I treasure my set and the history behind them.
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