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Ghanaian Artist Leads Classes in Kenya
Making something out of nothing is what African woodcarver Cephas Agbemenu does as he turns abandoned logs into beautiful works of art.

"I focus on carving because it is an imitation of nature," Agbemenu said. "Each and every piece of wood has its own character to explore."

Agbemenu, professor of Fine Arts at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, is spending May educating local interested artisans about his craft during carving classes at Keystone Art and Culture Center, 420 Pearl St. (See below for class times.)

With more than 30 years of carving experience, Agbemenu brings to the class not only his expertise but his knowledge of African proverbs.

Some of his shared proverbs deal with patience, which is needed for this art form: the carving process can take days to complete and doesn't provide instant gratification. Other proverbs deal with beauty or nature.

George Mummert, director of KACC, worked with Agbemenu during a previous visit and is excited about the classes and Agbemenu's approach.

"That's part of what makes Cephas' classes so interesting," Mummert said. "He intertwines his proverbs throughout the class, and you learn so much more than the carving techniques."

As Agbemenu recently demonstrated his technique at KACC, a mask began to take shape as he chipped away with simple tools.

What began as a piece of a fallen tree was slowly transformed by Agbemenu with swift, but exact, arcs of his traditional woodcarving adz. The adz, made by a master blacksmith in a Ghanaian village, is made of a sharp metal blade that is actually a molded piece of a car's axle. A piece of carved wood is crafted into a handle that fits tightly into the hole of the blade. The adz is used to remove the bark of the tree, which, in this case, created a carving area for Agbemenu.

"The wood is moist and needs to be uncovered to dry out a bit," Agbemenu explained.

The wood he uses is "found wood," and that's what Mummert and Agbemenu find attractive about the art of carving.

"It doesn't matter where you are, wood is always available," Mummert said.

"I am never bored, as there is always wood somewhere," Agbemenu said. "On vacation, I find wood and keep busy."

Agbemenu is known for carrying his tools with him wherever he goes.

These tools include his adz, chisels and mallets. The chisels, which are used with the mallets, have three shapes — V- and C-shaped and straight-edge — and come in various sizes. When pounded on with the mallet, the chisels create defined lines in the log by carving away designated areas.

It is imperative that the tools be sharp. Soft woods, such as pine, dull the tools, whereas hard woods, such as chestnut, help keep the tools sharp. Dull tools are sharpened with a grinding tool or on marble slabs and finished with fine-grade sandpaper.

As he worked, Agbemenu used the V-shaped chisel and his wooden mallet to cut a line defining his work area. He worked methodically around the oval line he had chalked onto the log. The rhythm of the mallet created a hollow beat as he carved.

He next used his adz to remove the bark within the oval, exposing the pine beneath the bark. Agbemenu's signature lines and the design were worked on next as he carefully chipped away the exposed pine little by little.

It doesn't take a lot of effort to remove the bark or carve the lines, according to Agbemenu. Proper positioning of the log is imperative. The log should be rolled around as it is worked so the angles for chiseling and using the adz are not hard to maneuver. Agbemenu constantly moved the log he was carving, bracing the log with scraps of wood to prevent it from rolling when it was on its side.

"The position of the wood is important as the arm will get unnecessarily fatigued" if the log isn't moved into easy angles, Agbemenu said. "I also tell my students to keep their legs apart when sitting and working on their carving," the artist said as he swung the adz down toward his leg.

There is a precision to the technique that is learned over time. However, mistakes are "learning experiences" and some can be corrected by adapting the design or gluing a piece back together, he said.

In designing a wood sculpture, there are several approaches that can be taken.

"There are times that I draw a design ahead of time and then find the log to fit it," Agbemenu said. "Others, I just let the log speak to me."

Agbemenu suggests working from one side to the other within the design. The carving requires a form of neatness, a systematic form of carving.

"The beauty of the wood will speak to you as you work on it," Agbemenu said. "The grains and the lines make each piece have its own personality and dimension."

See more photos of Cephas’work.

By Claudia W. Esbenshade
Source: Lancaster Online
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