Face of the Forest

Wood carver Robin Baker forced to close shop.

[Appeared in the August 6, 2009 issue of The Molokai Dispatch]

By Catherine Cluett

For years, the face of an old man carved into a huge eucalyptus tree along the Molokai Forest Preserve road stood like a quiet guard over the woods. Now, all that’s left is a chain-sawed hole in the shaggy trunk where the contemplative face used to gaze out over the surrounding forest. The face of the bearded man isn’t the only thing that’s leaving the property. Robin Baker, the wood carver and creator of the tree face has lived in a clearing in the forest for 25 years. Because the land he lives on is changing hands, Baker has to bid farewell to his home and workshop.

Baker’s departure marks the end of an era.

Thick-rimmed glasses perched on his forehead, a scruffy white beard, and an unlit cigar between his lips, Baker shakes his head. Failing eyesight and health have already hindered his ability to carve, he explains.

“It’s time to quit,” says Baker.

His carvings and sculptures have sold all over the world, but Baker is humble about it.

“It’s not because I’m good,” he explains. “It’s all in the location.”

About 50 percent of his business came from the public, and tourists passing by on their way to the forest and valley overlooks. One woman from Germany stopped by his workshop, and as many others had, didn’t leave empty-handed. She bought carvings to sell in her shop, and ordered more pieces whenever they sold.

Bakers said the other 50 percent of his work sold in galleries and shops he marketed to in Hawaii.

“It didn’t get me rich but kept me busy,” he says.

Baker is full of stories and jokes. He tells of growing up on a ranch in Washington state, where theft was rampant. He had to carve their ranch’s brand into their guns so they could more easily trace who stole them.

“Back then it was still legal to kill people who robbed us,” he chuckles.

His dark workshop used to be overflowing with carving tools, equipment, wood shavings and half-finished carvings. Now it’s nearly empty, but still smells like freshly-hewn timber.

“I haven’t seen the floor in a long time,” Baker says, looking down at the heap of dust and wood shavings that are left.

It has taken Baker only two weeks to sell of almost all his equipment. An aspiring carver from Molokai bought all his tools, and Baker is teaching him how to use them.

Baker moved to Molokai from Maui in 1969. He was in the construction business for 40 years, and says he used to be the building inspector for the island of Molokai. He retired from construction when he moved up to the forest in 1984. That is also when he began carving seriously. He learned by trial and error, though he had toyed with the skill since he was young. He says he started carving to keep himself busy.

He also learned from other carvers. Back in the 1990s, he took a road trip to visit and learn from wood artists on the U.S. west coast and Mexico.

And though Baker has slowed physically, the same sense of adventure is still alive and well. He says after he moves from the forest, he plans to do some more traveling.

But he has another dream to fulfill as well.

Baker is a former pilot, and says he has flown in just about every type of flying machine except for a hot air balloon.

“I want to ride in a balloon,” he says. “But I don’t want a two hour ride. I want to float all day.”

Walk in the door of Baker’s dim workshop and you’ve walked into another world. But when he opens the door of his sealed display room, you’ve walked into a wonderland. Shelves are lined with boxes, bowls and sculptures in all shapes, colors and sizes. Some are smooth with simple lines. Others are elaborate, intricate and imaginative. Face sculptures hang on the walls, every detail down to the hairs of their beards chiseled with a chain saw. For the more delicate carvings, Baker uses pneumatic (air compression) hand grinders, which he likens to dentist drills.

The display compartment has rubberized walls and a dehumidifier to keep the wood protected from the elements. Beside each carving is a piece of masking tape marked with the number of hours it took Baker to create the work. He charges $10 per hour.

He says the longest he has spent on one piece is 500 hours.

“It’s rare you do something you’re totally happy with,” he explains.

But Baker points out one exception – it’s a gargantuan bowl covered in delicate figures and mythical creatures that came to life in the colorful rooms of Baker’s imagination. It takes an equally imaginative eye to pick out the hidden details – the longer you examine the wood, the more grasshoppers, birds, fairies and centaurs appear from the swirling light and dark wood.

He describes it as his best work. It took 267 hours to complete. That’s $2,670 from Baker’s workshop. He says in a gallery, the piece would sell for $12,000 or $14,000.

It was Baker’s last piece.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) leases the group of buildings that Baker occupies from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Since 1985, TNC has used one of the buildings to house volunteer groups, according to Ed Misaki, TNC’s Molokai Program Director. Before that, the buildings had been leased by the Aloha Council Boy Scouts.  Baker lives in one building and uses another as his workshop in exchange for providing maintenance and security for the property.

But TNC no longer uses the buildings, and has terminated their lease with the DLNR. Misaki cites the tough economy and the need to cut back their budget. DLNR has required TNC, and subsequently Baker, to vacate all the buildings.

Baker said he received notice of the change about a month ago, in a letter from the DLNR requiring him to vacate by January 2010. But he said shortly thereafter, he received another letter from TNC asking that he be out of the buildings much sooner. Baker said he expects to be out in a month or so. He said TNC has offered to pay for transportation of his equipment.

“I feel a little sadness that I have to walk away after putting 25 year of work into the place,” he explains. “But I have no hard feelings.”

“I don’t want to burn any bridges,” Baker adds. “I might want to come up here for a piece of wood someday,” he laughs.


About Catherine Cluett

I'm a freelance journalist, editor and photographer on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
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