Profiles in Craft: David Easterly

Craftsmanship refers to something made with the highest quality. It requires a distinct mindset and approach. Values like durability, integrity, and calling are often associated with craftsmanship. But it’s more than that. Craftsmanship—to live a life and perform work with craft—is the struggle for individual agency in a world telling us to fit in. More than finding a calling, it is about understanding how to fully utilize ourselves and our unique ability to solve problems of every kind. My goal is build a bridge between the principles of craftsmanship in the traditional sense and apply it to our own lives and work.

Awestruck at the sight of a Grinling Gibbons carving in a London church, David Esterly chose to dedicate his life to woodcarving—its physical rhythms, intricate beauty, and intellectual demands. Forty years later, he is the foremost practitioner of Gibbons’s forgotten technique, which revolutionized ornamental sculpture in the late 1600s with its spectacular cascades of flowers, fruits, and foliage.

After a disastrous fire at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, Esterly was asked to replace the Gibbons masterpiece destroyed by the flames.  It turned out to be the most challenging year in Esterly’s life, forcing him to question his abilities and delve deeply into what it means to make a thing well. Written with a philosopher’s intellect and a poet’s grace, The Lost Carving explores the connection between creativity and physical work and illuminates the passionate pursuit of a vocation that unites head and hand and heart.

Esterly kept a daily journal during his year carving the restoration, a diary that became the springboard for The Lost Carving two decades later. The book narrates his evolution as a woodcarver and describes how the project crucially shaped his own artistic development.Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Rita Giordano noted that even a reader who cared nothing for woodcarving could “still be absolutely in thrall to the lushness of Esterly’s language, his passion for creation, his reverence for the physical act of work. The Lost Carving is a study in the marvel—both the pain and the joys—of doing a thing well.”

PhotoCredit: Harvard Magazine

PhotoCredit: Harvard Magazine

[From Harvard Magazine] Then as now, Esterly was and is internationally regarded as the most accomplished practitioner of the “subtractive art” of limewood carving since Gibbons. Indeed, Esterly is something of an anachronism: he has devoted most of his adult life (“I work seven days a week, after dinner, all the time”) to chiseling soft, malleable limewood, a particularly receptive medium for these delicate renderings. Many of his pieces take a year or even two to complete: such carvings are a painstaking art that calls on skills cultivated over decades. Thus Esterly has created a magnificent, if small, oeuvre: his 38-year career has produced only a few dozen carvings, almost all in private collections.

They are not hidden from the public, though. This January, Esterly assembled 15 of his most recent works for an 11-day show at the W.R. Brady and Company gallery in Manhattan. Soon thereafter, the collection went on display for six weeks in an exhibit, The Art of Subtraction, at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, an elegant museum in Utica designed by Philip Johnson ’27, B.Arch. ’43. Borrowing the carvings from their owners, transporting the fragile works, and putting them on display was “an arduous undertaking,” Esterly reports. “It will probably never happen again.” Photographs, however, are viewable on his website (

Of his improvement as an artist over the years, he says, “I never had a sense of getting better, but my earlier work gets worse and worse.” Carving, for him, is “a profession for high-functioning obsessive-compulsives.” He explains that “the first 90 percent you can do with 50 percent of the effort. The last 10 percent may take another 50 percent of effort. But that last 50 percent is what changes it into something good.”

Christine Haskell’s research focuses on individuals dedicated to the craft of their professions, in pursuit of excellence, sustainability. Craftsmen and women use those principles to raise standards toward a better world. In the Profiles in Craft Series, you’ll find a trove of profiles of intriguing artisans and innovators across the globe that illustrate her research and links to the full articles. Christine’s book Craft Your Life is due in late 2019.