To you, it’s just a carved plaque that represents an Amish boy and girl holding hands on a country road. To Tony Patriarca, it represents centuries of tradition and the evolution of a way to use wood to tell stories without sacrificing the wood to the story. It’s called intarsia, and you have seen intarsia just about all your life. So, it’s not the art; it’s the technique you are not familiar with.
Tony Patriarca has been doing intarsia in his Warwick workshop for about 15 years and very helpfully gives visitors to his workshop a sturdy card that gives a brief outline of history of this decorative art form.
“Intarsia Wood Art is an ancient inlay wood art that has recently been revived,” it reports. “Through the centuries, rich patrons employed craftsmen to create beautiful works of art from wood.” Patriarca cites examples of the work found in Egypt, Rome, Persia and even Japan, but Germany and Italy during the Renaissance produced the most spectacular examples. For a more comprehensive history, see F. Hamilton Jackson’s “Intarsia and Marquetry,” London, 1903, who writes that, “Historians agree that the city of Siena was the cradle of Italian wood carving and inlaying. As early as the thirteenth century, documents mentioned a certain Manuello who, with his son Parit, in 1259 worked on the ancient choir of the Siena Cathedral.”
But Tony’s brief version will do to introduce you to thriving craft that will be one of many on display on Nov. 29 and 30, when the 23rd Annual Holiday Crafts Festival is held at the Warwick campus of CCRI. The show is organized by the Ocean State Artisans, a group of crafters who got together to promote and encourage the crafts in Rhode Island.
“The only rule to join is that your work is handmade,” said Patriarca. “No manufactured goods from China or other countries: Just handmade stuff from America.”
But the craft festival is also a holiday food drive for local food programs, which last year collected over 3,000 pounds of food and gave $5,000 to Rhode Island charities.
Patriarca has always been interested in woodworking. His father was a contractor.
“As a boy, I always had a hammer within reach,” he said.
But an equal interest in photography took hold of him as a teenager and he left home to study photography in Rochester, N.Y. and in Minneapolis for six to eight years.
“I even took courses in anatomy as part of my training in photography,” he said.
Patriarca became an expert technician as well, and when Earl Davis was building up Abar, Rhode Island’s largest color photography plant and the largest outside of Kodak in America, he made a career of it until he retired in the early 1990s. But he never totally abandoned working with wood, and in 1979 he started building a house for his daughter that was based on blueprints from an antebellum mansion in South Carolina. No, he didn’t suddenly decide to become a contractor like his father; he decided to build a “doll house” for his daughter, although that term seems inadequate to describe what is actually a scale model of a real house and its furniture rendered in extraordinary detail.
“It took me seven years, in spurts,” said Patriarca.
One of the reasons Patriarca left photography was health. A failing heart demanded less stressful work, but for a man like Patriarca, having nothing to do created a different kind of stress and he came upon intarsia just in time to provide him with a satisfactory hands-on activity that was relaxing at the same time. Learning about the history of intarsia convinces you that there are levels that would be far from relaxing to master, especially if you had a rich sponsor looking over your shoulder, as was the case back in the day.
After the invention of perspective drawing and its application to painting during the renaissance, ambitious intarsia crafters echoed the trend in wood. Much of their work focused on street scenes and architectural subjects and simple objects like cupboards with their doors partly open to show items on the shelves. These were often extraordinarily realistic considering the materials and techniques used. The discovery of acid solutions and stains for treating wood and by the practice of scorching wood to create shades broadened the subject matter and deepened the skills. In the best works, pear, walnut and maple were the principal woods.
“At one time, Florence had 34 workshops for wood carving and intarsia,” according to Jackson.
Early intarsia works depend mainly on silhouette for their beauty, but they also exhibit the use of line (made by graver or saw) within the main composition. A great deal was accomplished by choice of wood type, color, tone and by arrangement of grain direction, a technique still employed by Patriarca, although Tony’s approach is a lot more casual than that of ambitious crafters of the renaissance. Aside from a very ambitious depiction of the Last Supper, Patriarca tries to keep it light when it comes to subject matter, but he is still very serious about materials.
“You always want to select wood for the grain, and how the grain contributes to the design,” he said, and pointed to the leg of one of his own intarsia dogs, where the grain of the wood seemed to be added by an artist to create a three-dimensional effect. “You always try to pick wood with grain patterns that echo the subject matter.”
By its very nature, intarsia places limits on the artist that are similar to other crafts and Patriarca says he spends a lot of time selecting various woods for their color and grain and, while it is acceptable to use dyes and colors, practitioners take particular pride in the marriage of material and vision and exceptional pleasure when the wood and the subject matter are, for lack of a better word, “made” for each other. If the wood is properly selected, less shading, tinting and dying is necessary. But, in the hands of a skillful artist, very beautiful effects can be obtained with dyes and tints. Too much coloring and the very nature of the art is violated. Good intarsia reflects the qualities of the wood being used as an intricate part of the composition.
“What I want to see is people completely enjoying the work I do,” said Patriarca. “What I want to see is a smile on your face when you look at the work.”
The 23rd Annual Holiday Crafts Festival will be held Fri., Nov. 29 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 30 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1 if you bring a non-perishable food item. To learn more about Ocean State Artisans, visit www.oceanstateartisans.com.