BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN
Originally from Saskatchewan, Craig Miller was the son of a railway man, so the family moved around frequently. He ended up in Minnedosa for his Grade 12 year, and met Cheryl, the woman who would become his wife. The couple has been married for almost 40 years and went out for four years before that. “She’s still not sick of me, so I’m all right with that!” Miller said with a laugh.
Although his parents kept moving, Miller stayed in Westman to attend Brandon University. He completed his bachelor of science degree at the University of Manitoba, got his nursing diploma at Brandon Regional Health Centre, and his Health Care Administration Certificate from the University of Saskatoon. And for the past 14 years, he’s been a nursing instructor at Assiniboine Community College. But Miller is more than a one-trick pony. In his off hours, meaning every evening, you can find him, knife in hand, carving. He carves almost anything — wood, soapstone, even moose antlers. He’s been doing so for more than two decades and it has become an integral part of his life and his daily routine.
What do you like about your day job? Were you a nurse before that?
I did many things in nursing. I’ve been a nurse since 1977. I worked in various fields. What I love about my day job is it’s basically a dream job. I just stand up and tell people things and they listen to me! Seriously, I have a very dry sense of humour, and part of the reason why I’m teaching is because I want to look after myself down the road. I know I’m going to be a consumer sooner or later, and basically I want to make certain the people who are going to be looking after me are going to be doing a good job.
For the most part, I’d say 99.5 per cent of them are excellent. And some of them just struggle and they’re not ready for it yet. And that’s how it goes.
Was it an oddity back then, to be a male nurse? Is it still?
It’s still an oddity, except that we probably get, in our classes at the college, anywhere from one to five male students out of 30 in a class. So that’s not so bad. There’s becoming more and more of us as time goes on. But even back then, there were five of us in my class. Three had psychiatric nursing diplomas already, and two of us were brand new into nursing.
What drew you to the profession in the first place?
I don’t know. My wife was a nurse, I wanted to get into something in health care. I was accepted into military college and went there for a while, but then thought that that wasn’t my life, even though they say there’s no life like it! I really have a lot of problems with having to take a life at some point in time if I have to. And I wanted to get into health care. So I applied to Brandon (General Hospital, now Regional Health Centre) because it was the hardest one to get into — there were more hoops to get through to become a nurse. I figured if it was too easy to get into, it would be not too hard to get out of. So I wanted to have something good and I figured that Brandon was a good place to go.
That’s great to hear. Now to move to your carving. Have you always carved?
No. It happened about 22 years ago — 1992. We were on a holiday in Frankenmuth, Michigan — Christmas town. We were walking around and my wife saw this carver carving Santa Clauses and she wanted one and I said, "Not a problem." We ended up paying, which I thought was expensive at the time, $100 American and our dollar wasn’t that great. So I said, "If you want any more, I’ll make them for you." So I got carving tools for Christmas. And I’ve been carving Santas and different things since that time.
So, you make this offhand comment to your wife and it turned into something you loved? Because it sounds like it was just a flippant remark.
Well, it’s actually — I can’t sit still. I can’t watch TV and just watch TV — I’m either reading, doing something, working with something, working with my hands — I love to work with wood. And carving was actually something I could do in the family room. I spread a typist’s chair seat und
erneath my chair, so I just kind of vacuum everything up. The chips don’t create dust — they’re just chips, so they come off, so I can do most of my work there. It’s evolved so that my wife does most of the painting for the Santas now, so we kind of worked it out together. And I shouldn’t say this, but it’s a niche — women drive the economy, and basically women can’t resist Christmas, so they buy these things. And that’s not a bad thing. Plus I try and keep the prices down.
I used to make fused glass jewelry. And I enjoyed it for 10 years — loved it. But there was a point, though, where I realized I was more focused on getting ‘stock’ ready for show-and-sales, as opposed to craft. And I stopped immediately. So how did it not get that way for you?
I love doing it. I make my own designs, I keep doing it — I do what I want.
And you don’t have to set time aside for it? I think that was my problem.
No. It’s part of my life — every evening. I just pick up the tools and start working. When you’re talking about fused glass, my brother does fused glass. He’s got two kilns — they do amazing work — and my sister paints.
So it seems to be something that’s in the family.
Kind of. Maybe. (laughs)
Some people I know who do artistic things, say that, in your case, for example, the carving is already in there and you’re just releasing it. Do you feel that way? Or do you design things yourself?
There are lots of times when the wood will dictate what I do and I’ll bring something out of it. It all depends on the wood. If I get a piece of driftwood, when I do natural bark carving or driftwood carving or natural wood carving, it actually is released. I’ve got a piece at home right now that’s got a horse that’s coming out of it. And I don’t know when it’s going to come out of it but eventually it will.
For the Santas, I’ll have an outline in my head and I’ll just kind of draw a raw outline — and I can’t draw. At all. So I just take away a bit from here and a bit from there. My sister paints. I call it additive art. What I do is what I call subtractive art. I take away to make it the way I want it to look.
The first one I did is really crude — it looks ugly. But what I tell the new carvers is the first one’s going to be your worst, and the last one is going to be your best. So you’ve just got to keep doing it.
Do you teach carving?
I don’t formally teach carving but the neatest thing about carvers is, they share their trade with anybody who wants to learn. We don’t hide secrets or anything else like that. If you go to a carver anywhere in North America — probably anywhere in the world — and you start talking about wood and carving and techniques, they’re going to start talking about what they do and share absolutely everything.
Do you use a particular kind of wood? Or do you change it up sometimes?
Bark carving is usually cottonwood that we find around here. Old homesteads are the easiest place to find it, where trees have fallen down. That’s what you want. And people bring me bark from all over the place and wood from all over the place.
But some types have got to be a lot harder than others.
It’s not that bad. You’ve just got to get into it and figure out what you’re going to do with it. But redwood is actually hard to carve.
Tell me about Wheat City Carvers.
Anybody can join. The meetings are every Tuesday evening from about 7 till about 9 o’clock. This year, they’re at Vincent Massey high school — we carve in the shop there, which is really nice. People can just show up. We do have a $3 charge every evening, which pays for coffee — the cookies are donated — it pays for the insurance we have to have for the school. And it helps pay for the competition.
We have about 40 members altogether and at least 15 or 20 come out each week. They range in age from Cameron, who’s about 12 or 14, right up to people in their 80s. And there’s probably about five women who are there, a couple of husband and wife teams that we have coming. Whoever!
And the group has a show and sale coming up next weekend?
It’s actually a show and competition. I think probably all the carvings may be for sale, but you have to make an arrangement with the artist. Most of it is a competition and it’s just for display. Carvers come from Manitoba, Saskatchewan — most of us from Brandon put something in. We have a few from North Dakota who come in. We have judges who come out and judge the stuff and tell us what’s right with it and what’s not right with it, how we can improve — all those different things.
When I look at a carving, basically we pick it from all the different angles — do the eyes match, does the head match, how does everything go together. When I do the Santa carvings, coming down to the face, it’s extremely difficult making the cheeks the same size. I’m right handed, so I carve one side of the face — the left side — right side up, and the other side of the face, I carve upside down, because I’ve got to go that way to get my knives in there. So you learn to do different things.
How long — I bet that’s something you get asked a lot — how long does it take you to carve a piece, depending on size, of course?
Oh, it’s the number one question: ‘How long did it take you to do that?’ Well, it all depends. It depends on everything. When I do my Santas, I probably start September or October, and by the time we have our open house — we do an open house in November and people just come — and I usually can do about 14 Santas by that time. So a busy little production line is all it is. And people come over and the Santas go to their real homes.
Their real homes. That’s a lovely way to put it!
They’re just kind of staying at my place. But before they go to their real homes, I always take a group shot of the whole lot of them just to remember what they look like. We keep a — we don’t call it an adoption book, but we have a book where we keep track of who everything goes to. All the Santas that I do, they’re all year-dated and numbered.
Is it ever hard for you to give them up?
No. You know something? I don’t find it painful at all. Because basically, when people come and pick these things up, they’re almost, ‘Wow! I’ve gotta have that!’ So I know it’s going to a good home.
The Wheat City Carvers’ Ninth Annual Show and Competition will be held at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium on Saturday, April 26th and Sunday, April 27th from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. Admission is $3. For more information call Nicole at 204-764-2116.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 19, 2014