For as far back as he can remember, Russian Alexander A. Grabovetskiy has found woodcarving fascinating. Around the age of 5, he marveled over the handmade wooden toys—carved bears and other small animals—in his local gift shop. He remembers asking himself, “How in the world is it possible to make them?”
Little did he realize then that woodcarving would become his world and that a simple woodcarving knife would become his savior in the Soviet Union and in the United States.
The Little Apprentice
Grabovetskiy had seen far grander wooden creations than those delightful toys. His grandfather was a furniture maker. Before the Russian Revolution, his maternal great-great grandfather was a famous redwooder (a woodworker who uses only dark woods such as Indian mahogany), who worked for the royal family in St. Petersburg, creating exquisite furniture on par with Chippendale’s. Grabovetskiy’s great-great grandfather died before he was born, and his surname was eradicated after the revolution. The Soviet regime didn’t like anybody who was connected to the royal family, he said in a telephone interview.
Traces of his famous relative may have been wiped out, but Grabovetskiy inherited the family’s woodcarving talent. When he was just 6 years old, he stole a chisel from his grandfather and created his first carving in a stone brick: a human face. He thought it was a really nice project and proudly showed it to his grandfather, but he wasn’t happy. In the Soviet Union, woodworking tools were really expensive, so his grandfather wasn’t impressed, Grabovetskiy explained.
But Grabovetskiy’s enterprising spirit paid off. From then on, his grandfather set about showing him how to hold a chisel, how to choose the right materials, and other skills of the trade.
Craftsmen like his grandfather knew that an apprentice had to start early in life to learn to master carving. So, at the age of 6, Grabovetskiy began an apprenticeship of sorts. He fondly recalled sitting outside carving small projects, and his grandmother, the grandchild of the family’s famous woodcarver, teaching him whittling techniques.
“We did not have any machinery. We didn’t even have any table saws. … Everything was done by handsaws, chisels, and mallets. That was the only way, the only approach,” he said.
A Master Apprenticeship
He said, chuckling, “By the age of 16, I thought I already knew everything.” Then he met Vladimir Tokarev, a master woodcarver and fine artist. Tokarev saw Grabovetskiy’s talent and invited him to become his apprentice, suggesting that if he taught the young man everything he knew, then maybe Grabovetskiy could surpass him.
Tokarev took Grabovetskiy under his wing, teaching him the fundamentals of woodcarving. He started with the design approach using ancient geometry laws such as the golden ratio, an ancient geometric calculation that replicates nature and results in the most harmonious compositions; and the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical sequence that when drawn results in a spiral said to be close to the golden ratio.
“He gave me only one knife, … and he said, ‘Until you master a knife, I can’t give you any gouge (a chisel with a curved blade especially used for woodcarving).” For over a year, Grabovetskiy perfected his woodcarving technique using only one knife. For centuries past, woodcarvers only used the knife, no gouges.
Once Tokarev was satisfied that Grabovetskiy had mastered the knife, he gave him one gouge to practice and perfect his carving with. Grabovetskiy laughed. On some of his projects now, he’ll use 100 gouges for just one project. Tokarev trained his apprentices to use as few tools as possible to achieve great carvings. Training in that way meant that Grabovetskiy could take two months to complete one project.
Imprisoned for Preaching
Two years into his seven-year apprenticeship, Grabovetskiy’s life changed dramatically. At nearly 19 years old, he was arrested for preaching and put in prison. “The [regime] didn’t like the idea that somebody could influence people’s opinions,” he said.
Grabovetskiy’s imprisonment was during the last years of the Soviet Union. “People didn’t have any food, even outside of the prison. But inside it was worse. There was absolutely no food. We would eat only once a day,” he said. Prisoners were given what they called “balanda”—bowls of murky, almost black liquid with solids floating in it, which often caused diarrhea, and sometimes death.
Looking back at his imprisonment, Grabovetskiy is grateful for his apprenticeship with Tokarev, being taught to master one knife. He couldn’t get any woodcarving tools in prison, but he was able to make a small knife. The blade was less than half an inch (10 millimeters) long. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to have. “That one knife was actually a lifesaver for me,” he said.
Grabovetskiy survived by carving small jewelry boxes and the prison staff allowed him to have a small potato to eat each day, which he shared with three other prisoners.
Later, he used the knife to embellish furniture by creating carvings and marquetry. Prison staff then sold his creations to the mafia because during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime didn’t pay prison staff.
Grabovetskiy spent nearly two years in prison. He was released as part of a prison amnesty when the Soviet Union collapsed.
In March 1996, when he was 23 years old, Grabovetskiy, his wife, and their 10-month-old son left Russia for good. All they brought with them was a suitcase, and most of that space was taken up with a pillow. In retrospect, he would have packed differently: “We were brainwashed. We thought that in the United States, everything was just artificial, no pillows, not the traditional way.”
They first settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We arrived on Saturday. Sunday we went to church, and by Monday I was already employed by house framers,” he said. The job didn’t last long because of the language barrier, but Grabovetskiy quickly picked up another job and learned English.
Settling in America had its joys and challenges. “Because some people openheartedly invited us to their homes, and so on—it was a blessing for them to meet people from Russia. But some people looked at us as enemies, and that’s still going on. … The problem is between governments, not people-to-people. And normal people, they just worry about work and dinner time with the family, and so on,” he said.
After a year, Grabovetskiy and his family moved to Indiana, where he established a carpentry business covering all manner of woodworking jobs from installing doors to making flooring and made-to-order kitchen cabinetry. Later, his business expanded to building luxury homes.
He employed ex-pats from the former Soviet Bloc, many of whom had been persecuted for their Christian faith, like he had.
These highly skilled woodworkers had the same challenges that Grabovetskiy once had. Without being proficient in English, they couldn’t find any good jobs, but they still had families to feed. Together, they conquered the local market and became the best at what they did.
Grabovetskiy’s Design Approach
Most of the time, Grabovetskiy designs first and then finds the right piece of wood. But sometimes the wood dictates the design. For instance, when he taught a class on 18th-century furniture making, he was struck by the grain in a couple of pieces of walnut wood, and a design based on the movements of the woodgrain came to his mind.
Each of Grabovetskiy’s woodcarvings begins life as a drawing—on paper, the timber itself, or a computer if he’s working on a large-scale project. Although each carving looks gloriously dynamic, every element has been meticulously planned using geometry and mathematics—right down to how many flowers and how many petals each bloom has. It’s an ancient approach that he happily teaches his students in person or online.
For instance, using a piece he made in 2014, Grabovetskiy explained how he applied the golden ratio, splitting the upper half of the vertical composition by 62 percent, leaving the lower part of the carving with 38 percent. The result: a harmonious composition with the upper part of the carving being abundant with blooms, berries, and a trellis-like structure, as opposed to the lower part which is sparse in comparison.
Viewing the complex piece, the eye is immediately drawn to the peony, which is located in the “golden spot.” This is where, Grabovetskiy explained, the flowers surrounding the peony enhance its position of importance. The composition is also set on diagonals. For example, a volute (a spiral) is carved diagonally down to the left of the peony.
Most of Grabovetskiy’s pieces are carved from one piece of wood, although it’s also common to glue pieces of wood together before starting big projects, just because wood is becoming less readily available. For his 2014 piece, titled “War and Peace,” Grabovetskiy added and glued on a few extra carvings to finish the piece, just as preeminent 18th-century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons would have done.
When Grabovetskiy carves, there’s no sanding; it’s a traditional approach. He likens the result to fine art, where the artist’s every brushstroke is unique. Each time he carves, the mark he makes is called a pull mark. “Every pull mark on a piece of timber makes them really unique, just like a diamond has different sides and when you catch the light, it casts a shadow.” he said.
A Gift From God
Now, Grabovetskiy lives in Florida, a move he made to establish a church and to set up his woodcarving workshop and school.
Woodcarving is Grabovetskiy’s passion, not just a job. It’s a talent that he believes God bestowed on him, and he sees it as his responsibility to perfect and pass on that gift.
Part of Grabovetskiy’s responsibility is to pass on his skills to other woodcarvers. His weeklong classes are sold out within minutes, and students come back year after year. He realizes that it’s because he teaches traditional woodcarving and art history; neither are usually taught in college curricula.
An Old Testament story made him see his talent clearly. The Book of Exodus tells how God asked Moses to make sure the slave Bezalel built the tabernacle. God said: I appointed him. It meant that God placed particular talents in Bezalel, Grabovetskiy explained.
Grabovetskiy ardently believes that his God-given talent is woodcarving. It’s a talent that has saved his life many times: in prison and when he started his woodcarving business.
Grabovetskiy continues to perfect his skills by hand carving sumptuous ornamental wooden sculptures using centuries-old traditional techniques. As a testament to his talent, Grabovetskiy is world-renowned, having won the Woodworkers Institute’s International Woodcarver of the Year 2012 award and teaching often-sold-out courses to woodcarvers around the country and online.
“Every profession, not only woodcarving, … if you have a talent in some area, … God gave you that talent and you really have to polish it,” he said.
To find out more about woodcarver Alexander Grabovetskiy, visit Grabovetskiy.com