An intricate hobby

Upon first glance, the block of wood looked like it had been covered with tangled pieces of plastic. But upon closer observation, the intricate grapes and graceful vines take form. And when the artist lifts back the top, an empty compartment is revealed.

The pear wood jewelry box was created by Glendale woodcarver Nairi Safaryan and won top honors in the Woodcraft and Pfeil Carving Artistry Contest in April. The prize was a four-day, three-night trip to Brienz, Switzerland, and private carving training with master carver Paul Fuchs at the Kantonale Schnizlerschule Brienz woodcarving school. Safaryan and another winner took the trip in June.

"The Fuchs family has had four generations of woodcarvers," Safaryan said. "We had a half day of training each day, and then they took us to see museums the other half of the day."

Safaryan is a world-class carver, Lori Milner, marketing manager for contest sponsor Woodcraft, said in an e-mail.

"The ornate pear wood jewelry box he entered into the Woodcraft & Pfeil Carving Artistry Contest is incredibly unique and extremely well done," she said. "He is an artist that is able to translate his vision through his hands and carving ability."

Safaryan has several contemporary works in the del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles, said Ray Leier, gallery partner. There are three major works and a half-dozen or more smaller pieces on display.

"I think his work is fabulous," Leier said. "He's really got his own style. Some of his pieces are downright sexy."

The 24-inch-high pieces depict women in gowns, he said.

"They are dressed to the nines and carved out of one piece of wood, and that's what I mean by being downright sexy," Leier said. "It's sensual, not erotic. You know how you get a gesture when someone stands or looks a certain way? It's very alluring and beautiful."

Safaryan also carves 8- to 10-inch-high, single figures that look like they are emanating from a high heel.

"It goes into a woman's form that is just beautiful," Leier said.

Safaryan has been carving since he was a child.

"I carved things out of the chalk used on the blackboard at school," he said. "I mostly carved faces."

His parents wanted to encourage his talent and gave him his first saw at age 4.

"The first time I used the saw, I cut off the wood supports under our dinner table," he said. "My parents just shrugged and said 'He's learning.'"

Safaryan was an electrical engineer in Armenia until the fall of the Soviet Union when the company he worked for dropped from 120 employees to 20, he said.

He decided to switch to his hobby of woodcarving and was able to make a living at it, he said.

The catalyst for his intricate style of carving was a visit to a folk museum in Armenia, where he saw several items carved with grapes, vines and leaves.

While those works were made up of many wood pieces, Safaryan instead uses one block of wood and carves several layers deep into it.

"I use power tools, and 90% of the time I use a hand chisel," he said.

He met an American visiting Armenia who liked his work and started selling his carvings in the United States. In 2002, the owners of a gallery in Las Vegas invited Safaryan to live in their home while he taught his style of carving at a nearby training center.

"They would take me to other galleries," he said. "They provided me with a place to live and food for free."

They also brought him to galleries in California and encouraged him to submit his wood carvings in the annual show sponsored by Smoky Hollow Carvers, Chapter 45, in La Crescenta Park. He won the Best of Show and the People's Choice Award in 2002.

"He's basically a professional carver, which makes him stand out from the amateurs who usually enter our shows," said George Smith, the group's president. "His work is quite unique, and that in itself makes him stand out over other people."

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