Fairfield artist uses traditional chip carving methods

Harvey Paris needed to find a solo activity that would keep him busy when his wife began attending rabbinical school in 2006.

“She told me, ‘You need a hobby, and it can’t be the bongo drums because I need to study,’” Paris said.

That’s when he decided to work with wood. Paris quickly dismissed the idea of having a woodworking shop because it involved power tools and sawdust, and instead turned to chip carving.

“When I carve, I’m quiet,” he said. “It’s calming.”

A chip carver uses a hand-held knife to engrave lines, letters and other images on pieces of wood, usually working with pre-shaped plates, boxes or tablets.

The artisan isn’t carving wood into shapes, but chipping away wood from a mostly flat surface to create designs.

Paris specializes in religious artifacts, especially decorative Jewish ceremonial objects, including tzedakah boxes, shiviti plates, tree of life plates, shalom wall plaques and challah bread boards.

He also carves designs that memorialize people and events. Other pieces highlight humanity and emphasize common spiritual heritages. Items can be personalized with names and dates. He often gives the engraved objects to people as gifts.

“It’s satisfying to come up with an idea or concept, put it on paper and then really create it — to go from your head to the finished product,” Paris said.

He’s branched out to do carvings on leather as well, including a book he calls “Abraham’s Gifts” that illustrates common teachings in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions of wisdom. The leather pages can be displayed as a long, horizontal wall hanging.

He spends time researching traditions of different religions for his work, learning what images might be appropriate to use.

Paris, 69, of Fairfield, is well known locally as the longtime president of Jewish Family Service (JFS), a social service agency serving the greater Bridgeport area.

His wife, Barbara Paris, is now a rabbi. She’s JFS vice president and also provides faith assistance to individuals at schools, universities, senior living facilities and hospitals.

Paris’ chip-carving work was showcased in a 2020 Easton Public Library show and a 2019 pop-up storefront exhibit in Fairfield.

He’s completed Torah arks, which are ornamental cabinets where Torah scrolls are kept inside a synagogue, for a New York City temple, a Connecticut boarding school and a North Carolina university.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Paris created the “Newtown 26, 2012” carving in an attempt to bring some meaning to the tragedy. It includes 26 removed chips of wood, representing the victims, as well as a peace sign, broken heart and symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Paris has studied under expert chip carver Wayne Barton, who’s credited with bringing recognition to the ancient art in recent decades. Paris remembers how Barton, at the end of the first weekend class he attended, told the students they were now artists.

“Those words were very powerful to me,” Paris said. “I really embraced them.”

In 2014, he was motivated to begin working in larger formats after viewing installation art pieces in modern art museums.

But working with large pieces of wood presented challenges, such as transporting the artwork, so Paris started using leather while utilizing the same chip-carving skills.

Leather is easier to cut than wood and doesn’t require dealing with chemicals to stain at the end. He buys leather used to make stirrups for horses.

Two types of knives are needed for Paris’ chip carving. One makes the cuts while the other pushes in and removes the cuts.

Paris primarily carves in basswood, which comes from linden trees, because of its light color, straight grain and softness for a hardwood. Butternut is another wood popular with chip carvers.

His carving work is intended to promote unity and diversity. “The message I’m trying to get out there is brotherhood, that we are all the same regardless of our faith,” Paris said.

The artwork, he added, “is an attempt to use the skills I have to get everyone to realize we are all relatives and come from the same place. We have so much in common that should be celebrated.”

Paris grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and attended college in upstate New York, essentially creating his own Judaic studies major. He planned to become a rabbi but instead earned a master’s degree in social work at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Many decades later, he still offers counseling as a licensed clinical social worker. He primarily assists men in dealing with issues such as relationships and life transitions.

While it may be doubtful his chip-carving hobby can become a viable commercial endeavor, partly because in his view the art form and religious themes aren’t particularly trendy in the art world, it remains a passion he will pursue.

One goal is to make larger pieces for venues such as airport chapels, interfaith libraries, seminaries and schools, providing people with a place to “reflect on the meaning of life.”

“I used to always laugh and say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest Judaica chip carver,’ but I’m really the only one,” Paris said of his specialty creating Jewish-themed artifacts.

Visit jewishcarving.com to learn more about his work.

Brad Durrell is a freelance writer.