Many miniature Santas came to town during folk artist Mark Bair’s Santa workshop at the Tuckerton Seaport this past weekend. Bair has loyal followers, such as Greg Kratz of Little Egg Harbor, who has taken Bair’s fish decoy workshop before and will take the next Bair workshop in the spring. “He’s just a great guy and dedicated to his craft,” said Kratz.
Sherry Johnson and her mother, Janice Johnson, had traveled all the way from Somerset to take the class, but they weren’t the ones who traveled the farthest; there was a man from Maryland and another from Pennsylvania. They were intent on getting their Santas finished before Christmas.
What makes a carver come so far to make a Christmas keepsake? “It’s just fun,” said Kratz.
Bair agrees. He started carving folk-type art when he took a class making a Santa with Joe Walton at the Seaport. That was eight or nine years ago, “Now I’m teaching here,” he said. And for the past two years, Bair has been living the dream of many an artist, making a living at it.
“I sell at 26 outdoors art fairs, and I’m in 12 galleries from Key West to Bar Harbor, Maine,” said Bair. “My wife, Lisa, does the business side now that I’ve retired from the corporate world.
“I’m a third-generation artist, so I always painted and drew, and now my daughter is a fourth-generation carver. I was always interested in carving, and it was my hobby before it became my business. I started to do it full time two years ago, when I was downsized out of my corporate job and realized I could make as much money as I could working for a local company.”
Luckily, Bair’s wife is a retired schoolteacher, so they have a small income and benefits, but for the last two years they have been doing the arts circuit, traveling up and down the East Coast in their 31-foot travel trailer. “She does all the research, and I do the carving.
“It’s a way to see the country as well as a way to make a living,” said Bair. “We will be leaving in December for Virginia for a craft show called the Bizarre Bazaar. It’s a really good five-day fair. We only do high-end fine art and craft fairs that my wife researches. She also writes for Sunshine Artists magazine, a magazine dedicated to the business of art.
“We have the packing-up down pretty well, and we have a professional tent. After Christmas, we’ll spend two months traveling in Florida.”
Bair keeps his hand whittling as they travel around to keep the inventory up. “I always demonstrate at the shows, so that helps, and then when we camp, I can paint. We go up and down the coast from Key West to Maine.”
Bair is known for his “flat plane” Santa carvings, his decorative stand-alone fish decoys, whales, his Americana and nautical figures (view more at mdbairstudio.com).
“I started making fish and figure carvings in 2000, and I taught myself how to do a few of those, but I really like folk and whimsy pieces.”
Because he is allergic to the decoy carver’s standard cedar wood, Bair carves only bass wood imported from Minnesota. “It’s also known as American linden, or the British call it lime wood. It takes detail much better; all the intricate carvings in European cathedrals are made of bass wood.”
The Santa he was teaching his class is a Scandinavian Santa made in the flat plane tradition. “That means it’s carved in planes, not rounded, and we don’t do any sanding. When it’s finished, it’s painted with acrylics, and then it gets buffed using boiled linseed oil – that gives it a warmer, richer look.”
The Tuckerton Seaport will exhibit four large figures it commissioned for the Christmas Pyramid that is the welcome totem for the annual Christkindlmarkt. Bair created four baymen types – a clammer, two duck hunters and a fisherman – that will be displayed on the pyramid.
Seaport volunteer Wayne Martin created the whimsical Christmas Pyramid three years ago as a tribute to his late wife, Jean. “We took a Danube River cruise around Christmastime, and we saw the pyramids in Nuremburg.” The first level of the rotating pyramid holds the angels, the second level has decoys, and the third level will have Bair’s bay figurines. The last level holds a wooden Nativity scene, also carved by Bair.
The Christkindlmarkt is Dec. 5, 6 and 7 at the Seaport. Check it out, but don’t expect to see Bair; he’ll be in Virginia.