MIDDLEBURY — Peter Padua hadn’t thought much about testing his artistic abilities until he was a senior in high school in New Jersey. It was 1941, the same year as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Padua — who enjoyed his wood shop class — thought he would try his hand at his first carving: A mountain deer, her head craned way back as if staring at the stars.
“I saw this picture in a popular science magazine and I said, ‘Gee, that’s cute,’” Padua, now 90, recalled. “I asked the teacher if I could take this piece of wood and take it home. He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’”
Padua cut out the design and, in his words, “played around with it.” He finished the small carving after graduation, meticulously perching the deer on top of a separate little antler that he had fashioned.
Little did he know that small deer, which remains in the family, would launch what has become a 71-year (and counting) passion for carving that has seen him turn hunks of non-descript wood into stunningly realistic animals ranging from bears to representations of every official state bird in the union and a veritable school of fish. Some of his favorite carvings hold court in a showroom-quality hutch and display case that he also made himself and has positioned in the cozy living room of his Overbrook Drive home.
“It’s the challenge,” Padua said of his craving for carving. “When I see something that I think is nice, I’ve got to make one.”
He would painstakingly work on his creations whenever he had free time, including lunch hours during his lengthy career as a draftsman working for various engineering firms. Padua was able to carve out even more time for his craft following his retirement 25 years ago while making memories with his beloved wife, Julia, who died around two years ago.
Though he isn’t as spry as he used to be, Padua still makes the almost daily descent down into his basement, where he uses a diverse blend of old-school chisels and modern electric sanders and drills to turn wood into anything that has caught his fancy. His favorite wood has been basswood, but he isn’t fussy. He’s used cherry, oak, plywood and even a hunk of dead timber a family member brought in from the forest. Appropriately enough, he carved a little tree out of it.
And the approach of the holidays means Padua’s fancy is turning to Christmas ornaments, which he has dutifully carved for family and friends during each of the past 27 years. Family members — including his children Barbara Conner, Michael Padua and John Padua — have pooled together some of their dad’s best ornaments that will be showcased as part of a special exhibit titled “Wooden Winter Wonderland” that will run from Dec. 1 to through Jan. 12 at Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
“Dad doesn’t have a collection; he gave them out,” daughter Barbara said of his ornaments.
The exhibit will bring to light the talents of a man who has, in the obscurity of his Geppetto-like workshop, created wood carvings that have prompted many a jaw to drop and elicited spontaneous cash offers.
“I am excited about it; I feel proud,” Padua said of the upcoming exhibit.
His holiday carvings have included angels, Teddy bears, hummingbirds, butterflies, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and polar bears. He also carved an entire nativity scene, complete with barn, for Barbara. It was such an arduous job, he dared not do another.
“I told (Barbara) ‘You can tell your brothers and sisters to look at your nativity scene, because I’m not doing it again,’” he said with a smile.
Padua often works from photos, drawings and magazine pictures to make his creations. He has occasionally spied live subjects (such as a Nene goose, the official bird of Hawaii) and a not-so-live one: A deceased family parakeet that had been put on ice and that he masterfully recreated in wood.
Just about all of his subjects look like they are ready to spring to life — like a furtive roadrunner who has paused briefly to scarf down a tiny lizard he has plucked from a roadside in New Mexico. One of his current subjects is actually captured in flight — an azure hummingbird in mid-flutter, his nose planted in a pink flower emanating from a green wire stem. Padua is making several of the hummingbirds for friends, including a 100-year-old woman. And Padua has, without fail, made carvings as gifts for the several kind souls who dutifully deliver meals-on-wheels to his home.
“They are volunteers,” he said, “and they have become my friends.”
Padua’s rewards through the years have been the compliments and obvious appreciation from the recipients of his carvings. He has occasionally received some major accolades, such as a blue ribbon in 1991 from his native New Jersey for a carving of a pair of brown pelicans huddled together. While the Sheldon Museum show will give more exposure to his talents, he doesn’t need applause to feel fulfilled. The appreciation voiced by recipients of his carvings is good enough for him
“It’s a labor of love,” Barbara said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]