Gerry Holzman, pictured here in the backyard of his Brunswick home, has a book coming out next year, a compilation of short stories about people he met during his 40-plus years as a woodcarver. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

Famed carousel woodcarver Gerry Holzman describes his life as being shaped by a series of fortunate accidents, whether during his military service in Africa, his work as a school teacher, his world travels and his decades as an artist.

Holzman, 88, of Brunswick is focused now more on writing than carving and has a book coming out next year about some of the many people he encountered during his fortunate accidents.

A horse head carved by Gerry Holzman. The entire piece is the full horse, based on horses seen on old weathervanes. Chance Viles / Coastal Journal

“My mostly light-hearted sketches portray some of the intriguing characters I have met – clients, colleagues, students, mentors, celebrities, journalists, criminals, cops and witches,” he said

Holzman is probably best known for his work as head carver on the Empire State Carousel in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is the project that best summarizes the intersection of his love for learning, teaching, woodcarving and folk art, he said.

The entirely handmade carousel that depicts the history of New York State, now a part of the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York, was a “work of love,” Holzman said. He worked on it for 25 years, carving the numerous portrait panels, 25 horses and animals to ride, band organ and more. He also supervised other artists’ work.

Holzman carved this face out of a piece of wood discarded by a former student. Chance Viles / Coastal Journal

“The carousel really tells the story of ingenuity and American heroism. Each portrait panel tells the story of a New Yorker who defied the odds and changed the world for the better. People like Jackie Robinson, Teddy Roosevelt and Grandma Moses,” Holzman said.

Over the years at the carousel worksite, Holzman hosted school groups,  retirement communities, sightseeing tours and others, teaching them about the history of both the state and carousels, as well as how to carve wood. At times, he he learned things himself.

“We had this school for the blind come in once. I was chiseling away talking about woodcarving and what I get out of it, and a young student commented on how beautiful the sound of woodcarving is,” Holzman said. “Right then, my view of the art expanded, and I remembered one of my earliest woodcarving lessons, that the point of it is to communicate. And there was this whole mode of communication I overlooked.”

Holzman carved this face into a tree, before eventually cutting it out to place in his garage. Holzman purchases his wood, but also sources it from downed trees or donated wood leftover from other projects. Chance Viles / Coastal Journal

His friend Garet Livermore describes the carousel as Holzman’s “life’s work” and Holzman as “a force of nature.” Livermore is the director of regional programs at Cornell University and former director of education for the New York State Historical Association and the Farmers Museum.

“The Empire State Carousel embodies his qualities as well as the people he inspired to contribute,” Livermore said. “He brought in thousands, some established woodcarvers, others of whom who had never done it and wanted to contribute to it. It was an amazing experience to see that come to fruition.”

Holzman initially started out as a teacher in upstate New York in 1957 following a career in the military from 1955-57 that took him to Africa. His passion for teaching and learning he owes in part, he said, to an aunt who would take him from his rural hometown to the city to expose him to  museums and culture.

“She had always said that life was a buffet, and you had to go up to the table and take what you could from it,” he said.

Eventually, Holzman felt the classroom was too narrow and that he needed to experience more, and he left teaching in 1984.

A small woodcarving by Holzman done during his time studying with England-based woodcarver Gino Masero. This piece functioned as a lesson on creating movement in figures. Chance Viles / Coastal Journal

Unsure of how he should go about that, Holzman worked different jobs and traveled the world. He considered joining the Peace Corps. But then he finally took another look at art books that had been in his truck for months, he said, and it revived his passion for woodcarving.

What had been a hobby became a full-time career selling commissioned pieces to a dedicated client base. The freedom of art is what drew him to woodcarving specifically, he said.

Livermore said Holzman had “a massive impact” on the community with his carving.

“I’ve met people whose parents or grandparents worked on the carousel and described the passion they grew for it,” Livermore said. “He tied people together in New York state in a way I don’t know others have. From all different backgrounds and abilities, and he successfully integrated it into this work of art.”

His biggest influence, Holzman said, was his multiple trips to England starting in 1976 to study with his Gino Masero, a woodcarver Holzman had read about in a magazine. Masero became his mentor.

“He taught me that woodcarving is communication, it is how you feel and how you interact with it, how it communicates a passion or story,” Holzman said.

After years of working in New York, he moved to Maine with his wife Arlene about two years ago to be closer to their daughters.

Linden Publishing Company has scheduled Holzman’s  the tentatively titled “Wanderings of a Wayward Woodcarver” for release next spring. The series of essays and stories chronicle the different events in his life as a woodcarver.

“Life is a series of accidents, if you are wise you can make something of it,” Holzman said.

A painting of the Empire State Carousel Holzman keeps in his home. Chance Viles / Coastal Journal

 

 

 

Comments are not available on this story.