8 Sep 23 - Resident stories

Wood it be Wonderful

Within the Hamilton Gardens Pavilion there is a huge, exquisite carving depicting wood nymphs and mythical creatures, carved from a fallen camphor laurel tree. It took two artists more than 7,000 hours to carve the piece, and it delights visitors from all over the world who come and marvel at the craftmanship. For one of the artists, Megan Godfrey, learning to carve was a natural extension of the skills she learned as a young widow, building furniture and sewing clothes for her three small children.

“When my husband died, I had to learn how to make everything we needed. Once the children were older, I needed something to occupy my mind and keep me social. In 1973, I enrolled in a woodworking course at night school,” says Megan, who lives at Summerset down the Lane.

Derek Kirkwood, the other artist of the Hamilton Gardens panel, was Megan’s tutor at night school. “I turned up to the first class expecting to carve instantly, but he taught us how to sharpen the tools instead!” When it came to the Hamilton carving, the pair worked in their own separate workshops, occasionally meeting up to compare panels and ensure the detailing matched up.

Megan’s first carving was a duck, with simple lines and sparse details. It lives on a shelf above her kitchen. Glancing around her serviced apartment you can see how her skills have grown and developed over the years. Every surface has some form of carving on it. There are boxes made from acacia – “sap wood and heart wood make a beautiful contrast, light and dark wood,” comments Megan – kōwhai and pōhutukawa flowers, tūī, woodland animals, faces on walls carved from tawa nodules, and a fabulous Jack-in-the-box that lives on top of the fridge. Next to her armchair is a large snail with an intricately patterned shell. “All the babies in the family have ridden on that!” Megan laughs.

Megan is fascinated by mythical creatures and loves the Lord of the Rings films; aged 80, she took herself off to Wellington to see the second film in the cinema. “I flew down and stayed in a motel. The films are wonderful.” A carved Gandalf, made from a piece of Linden tree and holding a piece of crystal in his staff, stands guard on her counter. Sir Richard Taylor, the creative director of the prop and special effects company Wētā Workshop – which made the Lord of the Rings trilogy – was once shown a photo of her Gandalf. He admired it, saying, “It is fantastic to see such wonderful artistry and creativity. I can entirely respect and appreciate the significant challenge of working in a medium where you can only subtract the material, which is the reality of woodcarving. At Wētā Workshop we are nowhere near as brave and use plasticine so we can remove and add to our sculptures. Megan, you are truly talented, and your carving is wonderful and inspirational!”

Back when she first started to carve, a man in Ashburton with a timber yard would send her wood to carve with. “He would pop a hunk of wood in the post. It was cheap to send back then!” Megan says. Wood is not the only medium she carves with, although it is her favourite. Bone, rock and tagua nut (known as ‘vegetable ivory’ for its resemblance, both in colour and density, to animal ivory) all feature in her collection.

“I was a rockhound before I started carving. I would fossick and collect them.” Megan has a green mouse carved from argillite stone and other carvings in obsidian that she collected in the USA, where she showed her work as her daughter Rosemarie lived there. Inhaling dust from carving obsidian can cause lung problems, but Megan discovered how to carve the stones in water or while wearing a respirator.

So, how does she get the detailing and perspective so accurate on some of her work? Megan holds up a hedgehog curled into itself. “I need to see what I am carving, and a neighbour had hit one. So, I studied roadkill! I have plenty of experts come and critique my work, though, and say I haven’t got this right or that right!” Megan shrugs when asked how long it takes to make her pieces. She doesn’t really keep track; she carves only for the joy of it, and not to sell. “I don’t do it for money, I don’t like parting with my pieces. I miss them.”

In the corner of Megan’s home stands a large woodworking table housing all her tools and the beginning of a carved bird. Now aged 100, Megan repairs pieces but doesn’t carve as much as she used to due to neuropathy. A keen gardener, flowers continue to inspire her – in fact it was the blooms at Summerset down the Lane that cemented her decision to move to the village. The flowers outside may be seasonal, but in her home, they bloom all year round.

This is an article from the Winter 2023 edition of Summerset Scene magazine

Click here to read the full issue