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JOEL Joel's Blog

RIP David Esterly (1944-2019)


Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack by David Esterly
Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack by David Esterly

One of the joys of my job is getting to meet brilliant wood artists and craftspeople. Ironically, I met David Esterly, the great carver who died last week, more by chance.

About 5 years ago, my friend Jeff Peachey and I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibit and stopped at a nearby gallery to see an exhibit of Esterly’s work. We were both familiar with Esterly’s writings about Grinling Gibbons, the 17th century master carver, and we were eager to see Esterly’s carvings in person. Lo and behold, Esterly himself was calmly sitting by himself at the gallery and we got to chatting.

David was born in 1944 in Akron, Ohio and grew up in California. He had the kind of illustrious academic background (undergraduate degree from Harvard, Ph.D from Cambridge) that typically sets a young person off to a career in academia, but David chose a different route. Strolling around London one day with Marietta von Bernuth, whom he would later marry, David agreed with her suggestion to “go see Grinling Gibbons.” David had no idea who Gibbons was - as he told CBS News in an interview that aired earlier this month, "I thought it might have been a former boyfriend, so I was sort of on alert!" - but the sight of Grinling Gibbons’ altar carvings at St. James Church changed his life. As David told a New York Times interviewer, "I was seduced by the power of the carving and its capacity to convey the beauty of nature. It seemed to me beyond belief that a human hand had fashioned those seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs in their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My fate was sealed."

In response to this inspiring encounter, David sought to learn more about Gibbons and took up carving himself. Of course nowadays many woodworkers joke that they “studied under You Tube,” but David’s idea of being self-taught involved a more extreme level of dedication. And the mastery he attained was such that he was commissioned to recreate the 300 year old, 7 ft Gibbons’ carving that were destroyed in a fire at Hampton Court. David wrote about his experience in a book, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. Jeff wrote in his review of the book on his blog, noting that David “considered himself to be [Gibbons’] apprentice, the apprentice of a phantom master.”

I think it's worth mentioning that the Gibbons style of carving which became Esterly's wasn't really practiced in the twentieth century. Esterly not only needed to learn to carve, he needed to rediscover, invent, and figure out how to achieve the delicate effects that are the hallmark of Gibbon's work. This is no small achievement.

A quote from Esterly's book gives you an idea about David’s approach to craft that really resonated with me:

In the usual way of thinking, you have ideas, and then you learn technical skill so you can express them. In reality it’s often the reverse: skill gives you ideas. The hand guides the brain nearly as much as the brain guides the hand.

It is hard not to dwell on the cruelty of someone so passionately aware of the connection between the brain and the hand, and who used his hands so thoughtfully, to be stricken by ALS, the disease that David was diagnosed with last year.

I found out about the diagnosis in an email from David at the end of April. He said kind things about this blog, which I appreciated at the time and even more so now that he’s gone. He asked me to be discreet about his illness, which he had not been public about, adding. “The disease has brought to a close my carving career — which depended, after all, on the neurological connection of brain to hand, now being snatched away. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Don’t feel too sorry for me: I’ve had a long and lucky life, and you’ve got to die of something…”

He said similar things in his CBS interview, adding, "I've lived my life by the connection between brain and hand. And now, I'm ending it by precisely that connection being snatched away from me. So, to me, there's something richly meaningful about that."

David sent me the photo at the top of this post, his final commission for the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. The world will miss his wise and encouraging manner and spectacular talent.

David’s work can be seen on his website , He was the author of "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" and "Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving."

You can read David's obituary in The New York Times here.

Join the conversation
06/26/2019 Daniel Burgoyne
Dear Joel,

Thank you for this post.

His work was simply at a level that any artist can only wish to reach. Even though you shared some hints, I still wonder how he could have succeeded to attain this level of mastery. I will have to read his books to even start to understand, I imagine.

I can only assume this was possible from an introverted personality of the best kind, leading to this excellence in self-teaching and practice.

At a time nowadays when introversion is not respected and even less celebrated, it serves a lesson to those who know little but talk and show off a lot.

Such extraordinary achievements.
06/26/2019 Wayne bower
I first visited Crystal Bridges museum shortly after returning to the wood shop after many years of other pursuits. During that visit and others that followed I spent more time in admiration and amazement of Esterling’s abilities than most of the others combined. The missus once said that if we became separated during our tours she would always know where to find me. It’s always sad to lose the good ones, not because their works go with them but because we can no longer ask them questions about how they did it in hopes something might rub off. RIP
06/27/2019 william francis brown
David visited me with his friend at my shop in upstate NY in 1998. He wanted to check out my windsors and see if they were any good. I built a windsor chair for his friend's home in Maine.

He was very humble and only mentioned his carving in passing.

--Wm. Brown
06/29/2019 George Oliver
Wow, thanks Joel for introducing Esterly to me.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.