Carving stories

NEW ROADS — A.B. Crochet came to woodcarving by way of Egypt. His student, Henry Watson, developed the eye of an artist by describing the surroundings to his blind grandmother.

These two expert woodcarvers have created a body of bas-relief painted carvings that tell the story of the people and places of Pointe Coupee Parish. A selection of some of their finest examples is on display at the Julien Poydras Museum and Arts Center in New Roads in “Local Wood: Painted Carvings by A.B. Crochet and Henry Watson.”

“I love how they capture the history of New Roads in their carvings,” said Randy Harelson, president of the Pointe Coupee Historical Society, which is presenting the exhibit in cooperation with the Arts Council of Pointe Coupee.

Crochet’s interest in woodcarving started when he was showing slides of Egyptian limestone relief carving in 1970 at Livonia High School, where he was the art teacher.

“The students said they wanted to do sculpture,” said Crochet, 81.

They worked in cypress instead of limestone because there’s much more of the former around Livonia.

The first projects were signs that started showing up on houses all around the parish. As Crochet taught, he learned.

Watson was Crochet’s student at Livonia High. He started with pencil drawings, but he always liked to work with his hands. He learned the basics of woodcarving but only developed his artistic sense as he cared for his grandmother.

“Her life was simple,” he said. “She raised chickens and pigs. She couldn’t see with her eyes but with her hands she could see things by feeling them.”

Both artists spent their careers putting their surroundings to wood.

“Old Cajun cabins, bayou scenes, old stores, old plantations, steamboats — they fascinate me in the sense that I feel compelled to record for all to see the way they were,” said Crochet.

He carves every day, even Sunday.

“I have produced thousands of wood-carved paintings, one chip at a time by hand since 1979,” he said.

“If we’re home, he carves,” said Crochet’s wife, Barbara.

Watson’s subjects also come from the things he sees around him, things that were a part of his grandmother’s life.

“I love doing folk characters and life along the byways,” he said. “I like to show daily living, what I know about.”

Both men are basically self-taught, and their techniques are different.

“The biggest difference between my work and Henry’s is in the detail,” Crochet said. “He uses larger chisels than I do.”

Watson, 52, uses basic carpentry tools that are easily available. Crochet uses more specialized tools.

“In my early beginnings, I didn’t have the resources so I used the basic tools that I had,” Watson said. “I still do the same today.”

They also use different types of cypress. Crochet prefers sinker cypress, wood that has been submerged in water. Watson, on the other hand, prefers barnyard cypress, wood from old buildings.

Crochet has been a full-time artist since 1979. Watson, a lab technician at Community Coffee, creates his artwork in his spare time. Both men take commissions from the public.

Historical Society board member and collector Noelie Ewing, who followed Crochet as art teacher at Livonia High School, has enjoyed the work of the two artists for years.

“They are etching the best of the parish in cypress rather than stone,” she said.