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A Niche Carved : Unlike artists using marble or canvas, a skilled woodcarver must 'cut the way wood dictates,' Jess Zavala advises.


Eight years ago, Jess Zavala would have laughed at the suggestion that he give up police work to spend time carving wood. Today, the demand for his hand-carved carousel horses keeps him working full-time in the open-air studio behind his Piru home.

Zavala, 46, took up whittling while recuperating from an on-the-job injury. He wasn't really serious when he entered some small pieces in a competition sponsored by the California Carvers Guild. But he went home with two blue ribbons and a head full of ideas. "I was hooked," he said.

The recreation turned vocation gave birth to a new hobby: instructing others on carving techniques. And now Zavala is hooked on teaching--especially the class he has now, through the Fillmore recreation program.

"I'm real enthused about this group," Zavala said during a recent meeting of a class which began last October. "They're as good as carvers at other clubs who've been working for years."

From Laura Asenas, nearly 9, to former Fillmore Mayor Delores Day, the group has amassed an impressive array of finished projects--statuettes, busts of American Indian braves, and cowboy boots that appear so real a weather-beaten rancher might have just pulled them off.

Even those who have an arts-and-crafts background are allowed no shortcuts in Zavala's class. His students all start with a basic project: the four-inch wooden shoe that began Zavala's career.

"All the techniques you need for an Indian or a horse, you get from the shoe," said Zavala, who learned the trick when he studied with Santa Clarita master carver George Atherton. "You learn the tools, the types of cuts, the jargon."

Zavala progressed quickly from shoes to house signs, driftwood faces and other small pieces. He left Fillmore's police force in 1983 and began working as a private investigator because he wanted more time to carve. Before long, Zavala became committed to the craft full-time, and opened a store in Ventura with his wife, Joy.

Zavala was commissioned to do his first horse in 1984. "December 8, this woman came into the shop and said she needed a miniature carousel horse in time for Christmas--could I do it?" he remembered.

Zavala said he grew up around horses, but had yet to carve one.

"I had no pattern--not even any ideas. I said, 'Sure, no problem.' "

Zavala quickly discovered that the horse is one of the woodcarver's biggest challenges. He had no formal knowledge of anatomy--"I can't even draw," he said. But he met the Christmas deadline, had one very happy customer, and a new direction to follow. At the Ventura County Fair the next year, he took orders for 10 big-enough-to-ride carousel horses. A year later, he closed the Ventura store because it took time away from his workshop at home.

Zavala delights in researching his craft and creating new designs. Favorite projects include a mild-looking horse with a "soft" eye and closed mouth, ordered by a psychiatrist who didn't want to come home after a long day and look at a horse whose mouth gaped open as if he were in pain. In the Zavala living room stands a big white mule draped in the U.S. flag, dubbed Uncle Sam-mule.

Fifty horses later, Zavala remains fascinated by woodworking. "Sometimes I'll discover the reason the old guys did things a certain way--it gives me chills," he said. And his enthusiasm is nourished by the special challenges of his chosen idiom. "With marble or canvas, you pick the way you want to work it," Zavala said. "But you have to cut the way wood dictates."

He said he often loses track of time when carving, and has been known to go to his studio in the evening to rough out an idea and find "all of a sudden it's 3 a.m."

Zavala isn't pushing his students to follow in his footsteps, but he has been trying to persuade the group to enter competitions. "They hear it from me how great they are, but I don't think they'll believe it until they hear it from people who've been at it for years."

As Zavala sees it, worse things could happen to members of the group than becoming full-time carvers. "I would have been happier," he said, "if I could have been doing this for the last 20 years. "

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