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Carved illusions

They look like quilts but touch them - they weigh 60 pounds each. Fraser Smith's artwork is deceiving.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002


PALMA CEIA PARK -- Fraser Smith is a man of contradiction.

He doesn't call himself an artist, though he makes works of art.

He doesn't bank on brilliance, never mind the degree from Dartmouth College.

He makes quilts, yet doesn't sew a stitch.

Smith carves his old-fashioned "blankets" out of big chunks of glued wood. They look like real quilts, but don't try cuddling up with one.

Each weighs more than 60 pounds.

Smith, 43, makes the quilts in a workshop behind his Palma Ceia home. It's a slow, dusty process that takes hundreds of hours of sanding, carving and painting.

He likens it to sodding a football field with grass plugs.

"It's terrible work but it's great fun when you're finished," he says. "There's a great sense in delayed satisfaction."

Smith creates the quilts to fool the average eye. You have to touch one to believe it's made from wood. Etched wrinkles and puckers mimic fabric.

"I can understand why people sort of scratch their heads," he says.

He began woodcarving as a hobby in the early '80s. He started carving coats, then graduated to quilts -- objects many consider heirlooms.

Smith sold his first piece, a white double-breasted jacket, to a gallery owner in Pass-a-Grille for $10,000. Former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum bought Smith's first quilt after seeing it in a gallery.

Over the years, he has carved about 30 quilts and a few dozen jackets and hats. A red "cashmere" overcoat, modeled after one his wife owned, hangs in his dining room.

Smith's work has been displayed in galleries and exhibits across the country, including the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., and will appear at the American Quilter's Society 2002 Quilt Exposition in Nashville, Tenn., July 31 through Aug. 3.

Two pieces are on view at the von Liebig Art Center in Naples, and two are for sale at the Connell Gallery in Atlanta. Quilts on his Web site, www.gofraser.com, sell for about $20,000 each.

"He's very accomplished at what he does," says Mark Feingold, manager of Clayton Galleries on MacDill Avenue, which has displayed Smith's work. "People often wouldn't realize what it was. When they did, they would be shocked."

A Mississippi native, Smith never expected to carve wood for a living. At Dartmouth, he contemplated architecture.

It seemed a good idea.

"I was interested in being an artist, but you can't say, 'I'm going to be an artist,' " he says. "That's the flakiest thing."

After graduating in 1981, Smith hitched a ride to California and landed an entry-level job at an architectural firm in San Francisco. Disenchanted, he left after about a year and moved to Tampa, where his parents live.

Smith worked odd jobs and carved in his free time. He did everything by hand because he couldn't afford tools. His first piece took more than a year.

He began woodcarving full time by 1988. It was risky, but something he felt compelled to do.

"There's definitely a lot better ways to make a living," he says. "You could make more money digging ditches if you count the hours."

Smith works about eight hours a day. In the fall, he reserves Sundays for football.

He spends most of his time in a backyard workshop, a cramped but cozy space with bright lights and lots of tools. His three cats and a TV keep him company. He creates quilt patterns on a computer.

A golfer with an athletic build, Smith laughs off notions that quilting is for girls. Still, he keeps a low profile among certain circles.

"I don't talk about what I do for a living when I play golf," he says. "It's not a good thing."

He and his wife, Paula, own three quilts, one of which he used as a model. He admires true quilters for their patience and attention to detail. Many quilts are too complicated to be duplicated in wood.

Smith insists he's more a craftsman than an artist. He doesn't have a fine arts degree and can't philosophize about his craft. Phrases like "cerebral mindscape" make him cringe.

"I never felt comfortable saying I was an artist. It felt arrogant," he says. "Anyone can call themselves an artist. The real test is if people actually buy their work."

Smith has no plans to quit making quilts. His next frontier: designing more complicated pieces with less-traditional patterns.

The ideas are endless. Even on wood.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

FRASER SMITH

  • CAREER: Wood carver.
  • BEST PART OF JOB: Finishing a piece.
  • NEXT BEST PART: Selling a piece.
  • WORST PART: The dust.
  • FAMILY: Wife, Paula, and three cats, Puddin, Spike and Sprattle.
  • INDULGENCE: Season tickets to the Bucs.
  • 90: Good golf game.
  • HIDDEN TALENTS: "I can take a lawn mower apart and put it back together."
  • MUSICAL NOTES: Used to play banjo and guitar.
  • MAINSTAY MAG: Sports Illustrated.
  • WEB SITE: www.gofraser.com

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