The following biographical information was written by from Chris Schwarz and posted on his wonderful blog here.
"Learning to carve the acanthus leaf is – for carvers – like a pianist learning a Chopin étude, a young oil painter studying the genius of Rembrandt or an aspiring furniture maker learning to cut dovetails by hand.
For carvers, especially those who focus on Classical Western ornament, there comes a time they will inevitably encounter the acanthus leaf, learn it, master it and finally incorporate it into their own designs.
“Carving the Acanthus Leaf” by Mary May is a deep exploration into this iconic leaf, which has been a cornerstone of Western ornamentation for thousands of years. May, a professional carver and instructor, starts her book at the beginning. She covers carving tools and sharpening with the efficiency of someone who has taught for years. Then she plunges the reader directly into the work.
It begins with a simple leaf that requires just a few tools. The book then progresses through 13 variations of leaves up to the highly ornate Renaissance and Rococo forms. Each lesson builds on the earlier ones as the complexity slowly increases.
One remarkable aspect of the book is how May has structured each chapter. Each chapter begins with a short discussion of how this particular leaf appears in architecture or the decorative arts, with photos May has taken from her travels around the world. Then you learn how to draw the leaf from scratch. Though you are provided with a full-size or scaled drawing of each leaf, May insists that drawing the leaf makes it easier to carve it. Each step of the drawing process is illustrated in detail."
"Perhaps the best way to describe Mary May, author of “Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” is to describe another woman – Grace. Grace began as an 8” x 10” x 21” block of mahogany, and emerged not with plan or intent, but with patience, skill and curiosity.
On her blog, Mary wrote about the process of carving Grace without referring to a model – a process called “direct” carving. “A woman was in there somewhere,” Mary wrote. “I just needed to begin chipping the wood away and find out where and who she was.”
And so it is with Mary herself. A carver was inside her, always – that’s evident in her childhood stories of three-dimensional play and carved zucchini dolls. But just as Mary handled Grace, she has worked her way through life not with a grinder, but rather slowly, with a mallet and chisel. “Without having a specific design, how do you know what is ‘waste’ wood, anyway?” she writes when talking about carving Grace. “This process of slowly chipping away helped me to discover the design as I carved.”
And so it is with Mary’s life. Her life experiences have allowed herself to live three-dimensionally. In fact, her work these days is split in thirds – carving, teaching and creating online videos. And what has emerged is a well-respected career that has allowed her to fill her days doing exactly what she loves."
A student's perspective:
"I had the privilege of taking a weekend carving class with Mary in my local Woodcraft in Upstate South Carolina several years ago. Rarely do you find an instructor so instantly likable, and whom you would immediately like to know better apart from the course of study. Besides her kind demeanor, one cannot help but be intrigued by the hints of her own story she reveals in the course of instruction – things like studying in Greece, living in Charleston, etc. I’m not surprised to hear of her parents’ unusual paths. The description of her dad makes me think of “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” and her career so far seems to me to exemplify the Aristotelian idea of “eudaemonia” – excellence or human flourishing as manifested through fulfillment of one’s gifts/calling.
Carving doesn’t yet find a high enough place in my priorities (in competition with family and professional priorities) for me to have progressed, yet that class is a fabulous memory. I still show off my only carved “ball and claw” foot whenever a guest asks to see my little garage shop. I wish I had the time to study with her often."
--Matthew Hindman, 2018