Discovering Gary Demers’ workshop, Woodfish, was a happy accident. After buying an iced tea from Black Dog on Water Street, I began walking back to The MV Times office. Demers’ workshop door was open, and as I passed by, I glanced in and did a double-take. As is often the case, my curiosity got the best of me, and before I knew it I was inside. There were wood chips dancing across the floor, stacks of timbers resting against a wall, chisels and knives lying in wait, a table holding court in the center of the room, and the earthy scent of wood and dust in the air. As an artist myself, I love stepping into another artist’s space. It’s an honor. Seeing their finished work is inspiring, of course, but I’m equally fascinated by the “before” — the timeworn tools, spilled paint, broken wire, dusty shelves, and discarded coffee cups. Unpolished spaces are where the magic happens.
To be fully transparent, my initial motivation for going in was to ask permission to take pictures of the room itself. I’m obsessed with textures and interesting spaces, and Demers’ workshop fit the bill. I introduced myself, and began asking questions. As Demers shared his work, my hankering to take pictures subsided a bit. I simply wanted to hear his story.
Gary has been creating art since he was 8 years old. He started out whittling, until he found his way to his grandfather’s tools. “My grandfather wasn’t a woodworker, but he was a farmer, and he had to do everything around the farm. He used those tools for all kinds of projects,” Demers said.
The fact that Demers was intrigued by his grandfather’s tools isn’t entirely surprising. After all, we often discover our creativity when we’re kids. And we never know what item, picture, or conversation might hook us. Sometimes something as simple as a bright red paint brush, or an X-Acto knife, can set the ball rolling. In Demers’ case, the discovery of his grandfather’s tools not only sparked an interest, but led to a professional career as a woodcarver.
“People would see my work and say, ‘You should sell this.’ At first, I wasn’t sure if anyone would buy anything I made, but then I made a few things and they sold,” Demers said.
Originally from Concord, Demers and his wife started coming to the Vineyard 50 years ago, permanently moving to the Island in 2013. While living in Concord, Demers’ work included creating signs for dentist offices, shops, and a variety of other businesses. Though he liked making conventional signs, he had a real fondness for creating trade signs. “I really liked it when I got the chance to make a trade sign. It was great because the process for making these is so much more creative,” Demers shared.
If you’re wondering what a trade sign is, according to helynhandpainted.com, trade signs have a form and shape that display the meaning of the sign itself, with no words required. The 3D shape or image on the sign allows people to understand what the shop is selling or the service provided, with no literacy skills required.
“I carved a large black boot once for a shoe store, and ad-libbed — made it a little more modern by making the boot sleek and sexy,” Demers said. “And I made another sign for a shop called Nesting on Main, that sold antiques, household stuff, and bird nests,” he said. The sign Demers is referring to is a carved bird’s nest, with three eggs in it, which Demers said represented the three clients who owned the shop. “They showed me a few designs they’d paid a designer good money for, but I didn’t like any of them. So I did a quick sketch, showed them my idea, and they said, ‘That’s it!’”
Every piece Demers creates is hand-carved. “Power tools are dirty words here,” he laughed. Island folks will probably recognize some of Demers’ work, which includes signs for Seven Sisters, Craftworks, John’s Fish Market, Vineyard Cash and Carry, Branches and Vines, and more. He also takes private commissions. One customer asked him to create a 7.5-foot-long and 3.5-foot-high sign reading ”Nashaquitsa Rowing Club” to hang on his property. Demers created his own sign, of course — Woodfish — that hangs outside the door of his workspace. He leaves some of his work natural, while other pieces have painted elements. The artist he partners with for painted pieces is Ruth Major.
Signs aren’t the only thing Demers creates, however. He also carves animals, lots of fish, furniture, and mermaids. “I love mermaids. I’m always trying to catch one,” Demers smiled, nodding toward a mermaid carving he’d done, hanging behind him.
Carving can be challenging. Instead of adding material, like you would while painting, you’re removing material. You have to train your brain to focus on the negative space of a piece. Also, some wood is simply easier to carve than others. Butternut became Demers’ wood of choice nearly 50 years ago. “I was restoring a 400-year-old chest of drawers from Holland for someone. Some of the molding was missing, but there was enough left that I could use it to duplicate. I wound up using butternut, and I fell in love with it. It’s lightweight, great to carve, and weathers well. But it’s been dying off from blight — the same blight that was killing chestnut trees in the 1930s,” Demers said. “About 35 years ago, it became protected from logging, so I harvested my own. I say if there are trees left alive, leave them be, so I look for trees that are already dead.”
In the back of Demers’ workshop are a number of pieces in progress. He pulled out a sailfish he’s been working on intermittently. “I call this piece ‘Unfinished Symphony.’ I’ve been working on it for a few years. If the piece is for me, I work on it when the mood strikes,” he said. On one wall hangs a beautifully crafted fluke carved from a single piece of wood. In another section of the room sits a sleek hand-carved chair that Demers made from a discarded piece of walnut. Hanging behind the chair are mermaids, several number signs, and carved fruit. Toward the back of the room, near a window, a compelling 6-foot wooden chain spills from the ceiling and nearly reaches the floor.
“I started to play with the idea of making a small chain, but once I got going, it grew into a larger piece. Everyone who comes in here asks about that chain,” Demers said. “It’s a great conversation starter.”
Demers has entered only one show on the Vineyard, the All-Island Show, where he won several first- and second-place ribbons. He’s still busy making signs, and occasionally repairing furniture, but when asked what he’d like to work on if he had his druthers, he said he’d love to carve figureheads, like eagles or mermaids, for boats, or take on a large-scale project: “I’d like to do something wild and crazy. I love a challenge, and I’m open to whatever. I’d like to design something for someone that is their wildest dream.”
Demers can be found most days in his workshop from 10 am to 3 pm, at 5 Water St. in Vineyard Haven, or by appointment. To inquire, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 978-505-4329. Also, check out Demer’s Facebook page at facebook.com/woodfishcarving.