From what is laid out in front of her on her coffee table, Vanessa Hernandez’s craft seems deceptively simple: the simple tools spread out over half of it, the lack of machinery, the pieces of wood and the finished products waiting to stir homemade soup or measure sugar.
Spoons are so ubiquitous that you can be forgiven for not realizing they are still being carved by hand, that they come from hands and are not just used by hands.
Hernandez’s craft is the taking away of small pieces to reveal what is underneath.
She has sold them locally at the Durham’s Patchwork Market, a monthly event of local makers and vintage vendors at Fullsteam Brewery. While handmade pieces tend to sell well, the market’s founder Morgan Grimm says about Hernandez’s work, “people just loved it and ate it up.”
While Hernandez, 29, was born in New Jersey and mostly grew up in Florida, she has made Durham her home for the past six years. While not carving spoons, Hernandez works a few hours a week assisting teachers at a local school.
Her craft started on a camping trip in Shenandoah National Park in July 2014. Hernandez found herself whittling a stick to make kindling for the fire, then came across some hand-carved spoons on Instagram and thought, “That seems like a lot of fun. That seems like something I think I could do.” The timing was also important; it was after a scooter accident that banged up her knees, keeping her from a favorite hobby, gardening.
Sitting in front of a coffee table laid out with hook knives and gouges to carve with and a few strops to sharpen them, Hernandez picks up the tools and demonstrates how to use them. With some bought from other carvers and others made from bits found at The Scrap Exchange, the tiny mobile workshop in front of her feels timeless – as if she had inherited it from her grandfather or found it in a dusty and forgotten tool shed. It has become a creative outlet for Hernandez.
“I’ve always had this feeling like, ‘Oh, I wish I could paint… I wish I could do something,’ and it wasn’t until I found this that I had that feeling, like, ‘Ooh, I found something that I’m good at,’” she recalled. “And it was a good feeling.”
The shape of the spoons comes from the trees that produce the wood, explaining in part the moniker of her shop, Ask the Trees. “Part of the name of Ask the Trees is just going with whatever design the wood turns into,” she explained. With wood in hand, she experiments to see how it carves. When she started out, “I didn’t have the utility part in mind, it was just, ‘Can I do this?’” After gaining experience, she now asks herself: “OK, what is this one going to be used for?”
Almost two years later, it’s not gardening she misses, it’s carving spoons if she’s been away from it too long. While traveling last year, there was little free time. When she got back home, she picked up those tools again: “I was just like, ‘Oh, I need this.’ It’s so meditative and stress relieving.” As she cradles the tools in her hands, it looks as natural as the wood in front of her.
Betsy Greer writes about craft and activism at craftivism.com. Reach her at email@example.com
How to buy
Buyers can contact Vanessa Hernandez directly at askthetrees.com/
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Prices: $12-$45.
Follow her on Instagram: @ask_the_trees
She occasionally sells her spoons at the Patchwork Market, noon-4 p.m. on the first Saturday monthly at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. Info: thepatchworkmarket.com