Beavers, birds and bears are not the only ones foraging wood in the forests. From stumps and logs he harvests himself and milled lumber from local sawmills, Tony Perelli carves bowls, plates, cups, and spoons — beautiful and functional works of art.
With birch, hemlock, and chokecherry trees as his medium, Perelli uses an electric lathe to turn the wood, hand tools to finish, and sanding tools to smooth.
“When working with wood, it’s in the front of your mind that you have a natural material in your hand, that what you are holding was a living thing in its recent history,” he told the Homer News. “Wood can be found all around the world and there are so many traditions that use wood historically and functionally.”
Perelli has studied and carved with Bill Copperthwaite, Jarrod Dahl, Joe Senungetuk, John Manthei, Monroe Robinson, Mitch Poling and others, and learned not only how to carve wood, but how to teach others to carve, something he is passionate about.
With a teaching degree and teaching license from the State of Alaska, he divides his time teaching at Paul Banks and West Homer Elementary. For his art, he has taught carving skills across Alaska — in Anchorage, Eagle River, Fairbanks, Homer, McCarthy, Nuuciq, Seldovia and Tatitlek. On Feb. 15 and 16, he will teach a two-day spoon-carving workshop at Bunnell Street Arts Center.
While caretaking a log cabin in Lake Clark, Perelli assisted the owner, Mr. Proenneke, in reproducing some of the items that were aging.
“Living out in the wilderness in a cabin built by someone’s hands and using objects every day that are also built by somebody’s hands, you start to notice how and why things are made, and with wood in particular. You see the marks of the maker through tool indentation and from use,” Perelli said.
Living for a brief time on a 300-acre homestead in Maine with homesteader Bill Copperthwaite, again surrounded by handmade objects, Perelli apprenticed, learning to carve bowls and spoons. He then studied with wood turner Jarrod Dahl in northern Wisconsin, who was at the time working a foot-powered lathe — the wood spinning with each pump of the foot.
With Dahl, Perelli learned to turn his first bowl, build the lathe and forge the tools and at the end of this stay, the two spent a couple of days carving spoons, building on where he left off from his time in Maine.
Raised in a family of tinkers who make items from wood, metal and other objects found around the house, Perelli continues his family lineage of makers. Equal to his love for carving is his love for pottery.
“When I focus on wood, I start to daydream about clay and when I focus on clay, I daydream about wood,” he shared. “I like that wood is more local, that wood speaks to the natural world a bit more clearly for me than clay.”
In addition to these passions, he enjoys time exploring the outdoors — hiking, kayaking, pack rafting, running, skiing, biking and climbing. In fact, he sells more spoons to outdoor adventurers and other craftspeople than to anyone else. These spoons are robust and longer so that food can be accessed in deep backcountry dishes or freeze-dried meals. On the back and bottom of every one of his creations is his hand-carved and burned signature stamp, which includes a mountain, a wave, and a tree.
Perelli and his wife Becky moved from Eagle River a year and a half ago, looking for a smaller seaside community immersed in the arts. He is currently working on a large serving spoon and a set of plates and bowls, as well as refining a body of work related to a 2021 Rasmuson award he received, part of which was to create plates, bowls and cups in a series of place settings, a natural setting trying to capture an idealized sense of nature and connection in a daily event like a meal at the table.
“I love to think about people using beautiful and natural pieces at home everyday,” he shared. “I find an object especially interesting when I can see that it was made by human hands and when it suggests its place in nature, reminding us of ours. Handmade provides a relationship between maker and user, a human connection.”
For Perelli, carving spoons is about beauty and handwork, mindfulness and nature, culture and community, connection and tradition, sustainability, awareness, and spirit, independence, reliance, skills, art, craft, and creativity, and love, life-long learning, personal development, and of course, eating.
“When carving a spoon, we’re using traditional tools and talking about lineage of people carving woods and using them in daily lives for generations,” he said. “Spoons are tactile — spoons are about hands and mouths, intimacy. There’s something about wooden spoons that a lot of people connect with. Spoons are used to nourish us, to feed us. Many of us have some memory of a loved one cooking for us, that time in our lives when someone was serving you speaks to caring, love and nourishment. A lot of my students have stories about a parent or grandparent that they remember using the same spoon for so long. Wood is cool that way in that it lasts a long time and also records the edge of your soup pot at the same time.”
Perelli’s short-term goals include continuing to grow as a small business and down the road, he would like to be doing more of a production style of output. For now, he is happy to work on one piece at a time and to share with others his carving skills and love for working with wood.
Join Perelli at Bunnell Street Arts Center for a two-part spoon carving workshop on Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 15 and 16, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Perelli will demonstrate the process from log to spoon blank, with each participant receiving a prepared blank. Participants will learn carving safety, knife techniques and spoon design as they carve a spoon to take home. Discussions will include perspectives on land and use of natural resources, as well as presentations of historical spoons from Alaska and beyond. Use of quality tools and the materials needed for the course will be included. There is a sliding scale workshop fee of $70-$100. The workshop is open to ages 16+. Registration is required at bunnellarts.org.