“He calls on the phone and says, ‘I got the bag and the head,’” explains Titia Saville, manager of Seven Sisters Gallery in Black Mountain. “Then he comes floating in here … and brings us eight or 10 pieces with [prices] on scrap paper. And we buy them all, and then we see him again in six months, maybe a year.”
Saville is describing a typical business transaction between the gallery and master carver Stefan Vinyarszky. A self-described gypsy, Vinyarszky first arrived in the mountains of Western North Carlolina in 1979. He had spent the previous seven years living and working on his craft throughout Europe, northern Africa and, eventually, Vermont.
A bit of a recluse, Vinyarszky lives alone in a rental property that doubles as his home studio in Weaverville. An Austrian accent still sits heavy on the 65-year-old carver’s tongue. Slabs of African mahogany, black walnut, French walnut and pine await their future forms inside his small living room, as do pieces of alabaster and soap stone. Vinyarszky’s creations — ranging from a complete chess set to an intricate mantle piece depicting 19th-century America (Geronimo and all) to his signature wood spirits — make up the rest of his home décor. A collection of chisels, a mallet and a vice are all that he needs to carry out his craft.
When you see his works, it’s hard to believe the carver had no formal training. “I had some friends, and I picked it up off of them and taught myself,” Vinyarszky says. At times elusive about his past, at other times wry, Vinyarszky insists a large part of his mastery came from simply chiseling deeper and deeper into the wood, until he was able to “make it look good.”
Much of Vinyarszky’s material is foraged from the nearby mountains, although he does purchase some wood from a Vermont-based company and a few local wood dealers. People around town also contact the carver from time to time to tell him they’ve got a tree he can use, if he’s willing to cut it down. “Pine trees and cherry wood and chestnut. Many different trees,” he says.
On his living room table, which doubles as a workbench, Vinyarszky has a photo album chronicling his years as a carver. In addition to wood, he works with sand, stone and snow.
Among the photographs is a 1990 article from the Palm Beach Post. In it, reporter Bonnie Wattleworth writes of a younger Vinyarszky, then an assistant to sculptor Walter Schwartz. The two men were hired by the South Florida Fair to carve three scenes — a swamp with crocodiles, a woodland with koala bears and a desert with kangaroos. According to the report, “The 36-foot-long, 8-foot-high mound of reddish-brown sand is part of the fair’s Australian exhibit in the new Exposition Center.”
Vinyarszsky smiles as he flips through the album, listing off some of the historic pieces he’s done for events over the years. “This is the Trail of Tears in Oklahoma City and the Buffalo Dance there,” he says pointing at another sand photo. Then he comes across a snow home. “My friends in Canada — I go up and carve snow with them in the winter.”
Lately, Vinyarszsky’s remained local, focused on his wood spirits. These are the bearded heads carved from pine that he’ll haul around in bags from time to time, delivering them to the likes of Seven Sisters Gallery in Black Mountain or Heartwood Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Saluda. “We don’t have any pieces of his right now,” says Kim Evans, of Heartwood. “We’re hoping one day to hear from him again. We didn’t know where he was.”
Vinyarszky, who speaks of building a treehouse and living alone in the woods in the coming years, doesn’t seem too fazed by schedules or demands. He works at his own pace. “It’s nice when it’s quiet,” he says in between rounds of hammering the chisel as he continues work on his latest piece.
For more information on Vinyarsky, visit: stefan-woodspirits.blogspot.com.