Richard, the wood carver

Different carvers have different motivations, and different approaches.  There is an interesting moment in a CBC documentary made in the 60’s when Richard Thompkins who was then living in Nova Scotia , is asked by the narrator how he evolved into full time carving. Richard who answers questions simply and honestly said  “I used to work polishing automobile bumpers, and when I got into carving I liked smooth lines and surfaces.  I started with a nude and did some abstract sculptural things before I went commercial and started to produce my own version of small animals and birds. I developed a style for each,  and continued to make them in bulk”. When the narrator then  asked him if he like many carvers found the act of carving relaxing, he answered, “No, not really. When I get a big order to fill it can make me quite tense.  Richard was a straight shooter. For Richard, it was not about accolades or great profit.  He developed a simple, minimalist style using mostly butternut, which he then rubbed down with linseed oil and lacquered, until it was slick and sleek, almost resembling midcentury Danish Teak furniture. His work was highly finished, with a straight forward elegance, and his prices were very reasonable.  You could buy a nice little beaver carving in his shop for $2 – $3.  He worked on volume.  His work was not only sold in the towns he set up shop.  He would also fill orders for hundreds of bears and raccoons, etc. from gift shops in Ottawa, Toronto, and British Columbia.   Many thousands of his works have found their way into homes as souvenirs and gifts.  He would wood burn his signature “Richard” on the bottom of the pieces, followed by Canada.  Thus many people believed that was his actual name, Richard Canada.

Richard Thompkins was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1930.  He did a stint polishing chrome automobile bumpers in Sudbury, and spent a short time in the Canadian Navy.  He then suffered a back injury and moved to Cookstown, where he bought some woodworking tools and started carving. He opened a shop selling and repairing antiques, and there began to sell his carvings as he developed them.

In 1968 he moved his family to Upper Port la Tour, a fishing town in Nova Scotia, where he had a small shop selling his carvings. During this time he would come back to Ontario twice a year to collect his preferred woods – butternut, walnut and basswood. Nova Scotia was not as good financially as he hoped for, so in 1972 he packed up his family and moved to Port Dover.

Things picked up. He joined up with local folk artist Lois Garrett, and potter Dona Matthews to sell from a rented shop in what had been an old net Shanty, and called it the Red Heron.  It was a small work space, about 100 square feet with additional retail space on the main floor and living quarter upstairs.

In 1986 Richard moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he continued to carve in spite of advancing arthritis.  He died of cancer in 1995.

There is an excellent small exhibition of Richard Thompkins works on at the Port Dover Harbour Museum until June 23, 2018.  You should pop in if you are by this way.  Assistant curator Katie Graham has even made a small but effective 20 page catalogue which accompanies the exhibit and is for sale for $15.  Thanks to the museum, and photographer Marcia MacKinnon for allowing me to use their photographs.

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