Deborah Mills Woodcarving


Photo courtesy Pratt Center for Community Development

Meet the Makers is a new column authored by the lovely Sara Durkacs and focusing on the artists and craftsmen that help make our houses great. To suggest a maker for Sara to visit, please get in touch!

It all starts with a brainstorm of doodles. And then it continues with a series of evolving, feathery pencil lines, the hint of a future bas or high relief wood carving by Deborah Mills, proprietor of the eponymous studio located in Long Island City. “The design process is a huge part of what I do before carving,” explains Mills, “before the wood disappears forever.” Tucked inside the contemporary sunny studio, Mills employs similar carving techniques as used by the ancient Egyptians more than a millennia ago.

Mills’s one-of-a-kind carvings bring the charm of a wooden house’s exterior inside and help to amplify its owner’s unique personality.


The process begins with doodles that help Mills explore a range of creative possibilities

The several doodles eventually coalesce into a single sketch following numerous conversations with a client. Collaboration and communication are the essential components of Mills’s process as well as her success. Her clients include homeowners, architects, and designers—all of whom commission Mills to carve a precise representation of an object, idea, or her favorite, an animal—which may only be present in their own imagination. Mills then refines the sketch into a detailed drawing complete with details such as the peaks and valleys of an acanthus leaf, the hind quarter musculature of a horse, a cat’s whisker, or a half-cherub half-mermaid with tumbling curls and an upturned fishtail.


Traditional woodcarving employs a range of tools that are as beautiful as they are useful

The drawing is transferred to graph paper and at last, a pattern is created. Mills will then sculpt a maquette, a three-dimensional model to scale, of the finished work of art to be used as her guide. Since a finished carving could take several weeks to complete, Mills prefers to mold in plastiline over clay because it is easier to keep “fresh.” The client may choose the type of wood or may even provide the wood for the project. All conversations end, including those inside her own head, when Mills takes chisel and mallet to a pristine block of wood, pattern and maquette nearby.

“Eureka! I finally found my medium in carving,” explained Mills, when reminiscing about studying wood sculpture at the Art Students League of New York. The woodcut print that hangs in her personal studio gallery is the touchstone of this discovery (it’s of an animal—an armadillo). Her spouse’s job took them to Norway where she continued her carving journey at a local trade school to learn furniture making. Along with the basics, Mills gained the confidence to use power tools, eventually becoming an apprentice to master woodcarver Erik Fridstrøm of the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo. Fridstrøm hired Mills to assist him in carving a full scale replica of the Ål Portal—a twelve-foot, 800 year old stave church doorway—now in the permanent collection of the Oslo Historical Museum. According to Mills, carving the reproduction along-side Fridstrøm was “seven months of bliss!”


Mills’s designs are whimsical and fun, and often include animals

Besides bandsaws and jigsaws, the tools of her craft include a mallet, chisels, gouges, and rasps. To this day, she uses dozens of the chisels handed-down to her by Fridstrøm. The wooden handles on these beautifully aged instruments are darkened by decades of use. The veiner tool, for example, now feature her own initials alongside the “E.F.” of her mentor.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is her go-to place for inspiration, as are the building facades of New York City which are full of ornamental carvings waiting to be noticed. The exhibition of Bernini’s Terracotta models lured her to the Met again and again. Resource books on furniture, ceramic tiles, ancient art, sculpture, and architecture make-up her personal library. “I love the intimacy of living with art everyday, like the beauty and functionality of a carved door,” noted Mills.

Check out Deborah Mills’s carvings at the LIC Art Open Group Exhibition on view at the Diego Salazar Art Gallery now through June 15, 2013.