Don’t call Anthony Costanza’s woodcarvings cute.
“I hate ‘cute.’ I can’t even say the word ‘bunny,’ he quipped. “I hate the word ‘craft,’ and ‘folk art’ is so overused,” he added.
And yet, the prolific sculptor, working in what could be called the folk art genre, has carved thousands of wooden Santas, along with hundreds of witches and goblins, that decorate homes all over the United States and the world. Costanza numbers the Archbishop of Warsaw among his collectors, along with an (anonymous) heiress to one of this country’s oil barons.
Costanza is a woodcarver of note and he does it the old-fashioned way. He has been featured on CNN, in Good Housekeeping, Country Living and Better Homes and Gardens magazines and has had his reproductions in the Land’s End catalog. Spending his winters in Naples and his summers in Wisconsin, the former schoolteacher uses simple hand tools and, in most cases, sections of fence post to create a range of work. His creations are whimsical and serious and combine an antique feel and modern sensibility.
His renditions of Father Christmas are far from the roly-poly Santa Claus of department stores. Gaunt, often staring, these Santas have undertaken a serious weight loss regimen, and the muted colors suggest they could have been tucked away in an attic for a few generations.
In fact, if the artist swathed himself in a long robe and grew a snowy beard, he would resemble his own work, so perhaps what looks to be an assemblage of Germanic peddlers is actually a long series of self-portraits, a la Van Gogh.
Additional subjects of Costanza’s sculpture include monks, mermaids, farmers, farm animals, eagles, heads, beachgoers, a futuristic Statue of Liberty, and a range of spooky Halloween ghouls. Some pieces are strictly an outward expression of inner impulses, but many are geared to the marketplace.
“You tend to want to make more of what sells,” Costanza said.
All by hand
In the tiny workshop attached to the carport of his 1958 Naples home, Costanza hunches over his workbench, holding a carpenter’s one-inch wood chisel in one hand and an antique rawhide mallet in the other. A single overhead light bulb provides light. Clamped to a vise is a sawed-off length of fence post.
“Mostly what I use is this white cedar. It doesn’t smell, and it doesn’t get bugs,” he said.
As he chisels away chunks of cedar, he already has in mind what the finished piece will become.
“Before I start, I always visualize,” Costanza continued. “It’s hard to start if you don’t know where you’re going.”
It’s the manifestation of the old joke about how to carve an elephant — he starts with a block of wood, and cuts away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. (Or whatever is in his head.)
“I always start on the left shoulder. Everything seems to hinge on that,” Costanza said. “If you start on the front of the piece, it’s too forward.”
The rawhide mallet was a big help to his technique, he said. “Someone gave it to me. Before, I used a regular hammer, but you get a bounce.” A purplish blotch on his left thumbnail bears mute testimony that even an expert can sometimes make a mishit.
Once the piece is roughed out, Costanza removes it from the vise and cradles it while he does the finer work with hand chisels — no hammering — and X-acto knives. He tends to stick with hand tools and avoids high-speed power equipment.
“All those tools and gizmos they come out with, they’re supposed to cut down on carving time. I can’t use them — it’s sort of a disconnect between the hand and brain,” he said.
His own muse
Costanza is self-taught, has never had a lesson and doesn’t recommend them. He taught high school Spanish and Italian for 19 years before quitting in 1990 to pursue his art full time, and has been carving out his living ever since.
“Whatever you do, don’t buy a book, don’t take lessons,” he said. Inevitably, “you’ll copy the style, and then you can’t break it.”
For his own style, Costanza draws inspiration from antique postcards and toys, and has his own collection of “Belsnickles,” or German Christmas-related carvings, created from the 1870s to the 1920s.
Costanza also doesn’t recommend sculpture for younger children: “It’s too easy to lose a finger.”
He said to start with painting, as he did. Costanza paints many of his creations, mostly with solid, consumer-grade watercolors, and leaves others natural.
While the original woodcarvings fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars — primarily sold over Costanza’s website but also at select shows — he has licensed his creations to several companies that make reproductions in resin, selling for a small fraction of the cost of the wooden versions. Those are the more commercial, often holiday-themed, works, while others are unlikely to be mass-produced.
He showed a visitor one piece, with a head inspired by Edvard Munch’s “Scream,” legs from chair and railing posts, and an antique doorknob in its belly.
The meaning? Don’t ask. It’s just in his head, and this is how he gets it out.
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For more information
Costanza's work may be viewed and purchased at his website, www.anthonycostanza.com. For more information or a personal showing, call 239-436-3589.