Wood carver Jane Allnatt becomes so engrossed in her artistic projects that it’s not unusual for her to suddenly realise she has missed lunchtime. Even the sea views from her Cockle Bay home fail to entice her away from the grain, knots and splits she works around in a piece of kauri that may have been rescued from a farmer’s shed.
The three-level home she shares with husband Jim is enriched with her work. Not surprising since she was surrounded with art from an early age with her father working as a commercial artist and also carving. He was great for showing her what he was doing, so she couldn’t escape the visually creative world.
“I decided to do a coat of arms because there was one in my family and Jim’s family,” says Jane.
“I thought it would be nice to have a pair of coat of arms on the wall. All I had were a few builders’ chisels and some snap-off blades for wallpapering.”
After making the coat of arms, Jane didn’t return to wood carving for a long time, instead enjoying various media including copper repousse, which she taught in a Bucklands Beach hall. She has done everything from leather work to cake icing, but for the past 15 years wood carving has captivated her artistic fervour.
Subjecting work to the scrutiny of other craftsmen is a challenge Jane appears to relish. She’s no stranger to competition having entered pieces at numerous shows and she won her first wood-carving awards in 1996.
This month, Jane entered four pieces into the National Woodskills Competition in Kawerau and brought home two first prizes, one second and a merit award. Although Jane feels she struggles with faces, Grandad, carved from kauri, placed first in the sculpture open division. The close-knit child and elder were inspired by a photograph.
In the Kiwiana division, Jane’s Kiwi Kete took first place. The intricate detail in the kete and feathers begs people to touch as well as look. Jane encourages people to enjoy the tactile sensation of her carving and breaks woodturners’ conventions by varnishing her work rather than using oils or waxes.
The timber is softer than New Zealand kauri and slightly challenging to use.
“I was surprised because there was a coat of armour that was amazing and yet I beat that,” says Jane. “I started with a big block that’s thick and it probably took me longer to make it the right shape [to fit a model’s chest] than carving the rest of it. That’s the fun in what I do. I know where I want it to go to and it’s achieving that — that’s the interesting part.”
It’s fitting to have a dedicated pinus radiata category in Kawerau, pine-plantation central.
Anything goes in this division as long as it’s made with pine. Furniture designer Andy Halewood won with his hall table and Jane’s Basket received a merit award.
Entries are assessed for their initial appeal, the finish and skill involved. Three judges have varied backgrounds, such as woodturning, cabinet making and wood artists. Jane considers the judges’ wide-ranging experience produces fair final results.
Former Eastern Beach artist Terry Christie first encouraged Jane to exhibit at Kawerau. When she mixed and mingled with other woodworkers, she developed from two-dimensional work to three-dimensional sculpture.
Her hand-tool collection was bought at previous shows and she had a mallet turned for her. Jane’s carving apparatus has grown over the years but she sticks with hand tools — leaving the power tools to her male counterparts.
She starts with a sketch and then sculpts a three-dimensional plasticine model before taking a chisel to the wood. Jane surrounds herself with reference books when carving real-life subjects, such as a kiwi, and uses pictures to ensure the dimensions are correct from all sides.
As well as delighting the eye and the hand, wood can also stimulate the nose. Lebanese cedar from trees felled around All Saints Anglican Church in Howick was rescued by Jane’s father-in-law, who also carved. Ten years ago Jane carved an apple with a caterpillar and the scent of the cedar still wafts from the heart of the sculpture.
As an added bonus, the woodchips are used as mulch in the Allnatts’ hilly seaside garden. Not many homeowners could boast they use kauri to protect their garden soil.
When wandering through Jane’s home, her work adds drama, intrigue and quirky humour to every wall and shelf. An All Black watches over the computer workstation and a bronze violin with mythical detail stands tall in a corner. Realistic wooden hats surprise visitors where they hang on a stair post among the couple’s real headwear.