Decorative wood carving is sometimes considered a dying art. “There is a real threat that these skills and techniques will no longer be available for future generations,” explains Charleston, South Carolina, wood carver Mary May. “My passion is to keep this art alive and strong, both by carving furniture and architectural details and teaching it to others.”
Acclaimed for her ability to incorporate intricate details (think scrolls, shells, fleurs-de-lis, swirling waves, quatrefoils and ball-and-claw feet) into traditional furnishings and architectural implements, May’s repertoire ranges from iconic Charleston rice beds to the historic mantels she restores and reproduces for 18th-century residences throughout the peninsula–in period-appropriate styles such as Federal and Rococo.
Born in the Midwest to a carpenter father, May caught the carving bug while studying fine art and ceramics in London, where she was routinely awed by the ornamentation of surrounding palaces, country houses and cathedrals. Back home in Minneapolis, she apprenticed three years under Greek-born master carver Konstantinos Papadakis, who encouraged her to train under one of his contemporaries in Athens before she furthered her studies at the City & Guilds of London Art School.
May’s work, mostly in wood but occasionally in stone, enjoys high demand in Charleston’s ecclesiastical and residential spheres; two of her loftiest commissions to date include slate memorial stones for the Holy City’s famed French Huguenot Church and a chimneypiece she meticulously restored with contractor Richard “Moby” Marks for a circa-1764 home on Legare Street.
The artist’s studio is nestled amid several oak-shrouded acres on Johns Island, noted for its verdant landscapes. One can watch in wonderment as she carves linenfold panels from black walnut or mahogany or tackles one of the world’s most complex motifs, the acanthus leaf born of ancient Greece, with apparent ease–so much so that she published a book on the subject in 2017.
“I love the aroma and atmosphere of my workshop; it’s a combination of wood shavings, sawdust and tranquility,” says May, whose husband, Stephen, hand-built the 12-by-36-foot white-clapboard cottage, complete with a covered porch and expansive windows that flood its interiors with natural light.
May not only teaches locally, at spots like the American College of the Building Arts, and internationally (traveling monthly for workshops worldwide) but also virtually–her inventory of online videos now more than 350 strong. Says May, “Hearing encouraging statements from my students (‘You have opened up my eyes!’) and seeing others as excited about this art form as me affirm that I am where I’m meant to be.”