He had already retired from nearly half a century of cutting hair and settled into a leather-tooling hobby when Gary McAlvey attended the county fair five years ago.
That spun his world on its axis, at least as far as what retirement would look like. Since then, he’s become a skilled wood carver, bringing home ribbons from every competition he’s entered.
It took a little doing to get there, however.
McAlvey, 75, looked over the fairgrounds display of the Walla Walla Valley Carvers then asked its members — "You think you can teach someone not artistic to carve?"
It was a resounding "yes" then and again a year later when the retired barber asked the same question at the same place.
But McAlvey doubted his patience and eye for art. "I was raised on a farm. We had apples and cattle and hay. That was more important. The school I went to didn’t even teach art at that time."
Six months later, however, he mustered the courage to begin lessons with Walla Walla Valley Carver founder Mel Wheatley, going sometimes thrice a week.
McAlvey discovered his barbering skills come in handy in carving. Learning to cut hair is a lesson in lines, McAlvey explained. As the longtime owner of Gary’s Bull Pen on Isaacs Avenue, he knew how to study a face and body to make the lines of a hairstyle work to a customer’s advantage.
"We all look at lines. When you go into school, you line up for recess. When you go into the service, the first thing they tell you is to fall into line."
He’s transferred some of that into the elk he’s carving. The flat, picture style is his favorite form, although he is starting to try more "in the round" carving, he said.
With a wood burner and a tiny nib, McAlvey "draws" the animal’s hair. "One hair at a time," his wife, JoAnn, chimes in.
"You have to take pictures and study the shadowing, how the hair lays. You see how it grows this way here?" he asked, pointing out the subtle patterning on the animal’s flanks. "The hair on an elk slopes here, so the rain won’t go in."
He begins a new work by laying a picture ("I wish I knew how to draw, but I don’t," McAlvey bemoaned) atop a sheet of carbon, over the wood he’s chosen — mostly aspen.
Then he begins the long process of gouging out wood around the perimeter to form a canvas. It’s called back carving, and it highlights every detail.
The work is therapeutic, except when it’s not, he said with a grin. "It can be frustrating as heck."
McAlvey doesn’t like to admit it, but he has an eye for detail, as evidenced in the numerous carvings in the kitchen.
"The kitchen is the gallery," JoAnn said. "I love it. It was my idea."
Even though he struggles to achieve realistic facial features, a counter display of ribbons indicate his renditions pass muster with judges.
The judging gets more rigorous with every level a wood carver moves up, McAlvey said. He’s on his way to the master level, but he doesn’t expect to get there without a lot of sweat.
He wouldn’t be anywhere without his fellow carvers, he insisted. "We all help each other. I’ve learned everything from them."
McAlvey has come a long way in a short time, Wheatley said, adding that McAlvey’s skill has surprised even the teacher. "He’s not a fast carver, but he’s good. He helps other people, too."
Walla Walla Valley Carvers encourages new members, already acquainted with the art or pure novice. It meets every first and third Wednesday of the month. For more information call 525-6130