“The only hard core tool I use is a router,” says carver Jude Fritts. “I am able to see the finished piece in my mind. So, it is a matter of removing the wood that doesn’t belong.” Fritts smiles and adds that it is “handy,” that she is able to know what to leave, what to carve away.
“I started carving in sixth grade. My school got a grant for music and art. They purchased a bunch of instruments for a band, and materials for an arts and crafts center. But, the arts and crafts center was divided. The girls were on one end, the boys on the other. The girls did girl things, made pin cushions and doilies and stuff like that. The guys, they got to make fishing flies, work with wood, and carve.”
“I wanted to do carving. It took all my courage, because I was very shy, but I asked if I could carve. I was told that girls can’t carve. It was too dangerous they said.”
“I was a tom boy and had already handled lots of tools. I remember being heart broken. I went home and told my parents. I don’t suspect, I know, that my mom went right down to the school the next morning and talked to them. My parents always supported any idea that I wanted to do in my life. They never burst my bubble, even if it was an outrageously impossible idea.”
“The next time we had arts and crafts, I was with the boys. I had a piece of wood. But now they said, ‘You can carve, but you cannot sharpen the tools or use the stop cut knife.’ The stop cut knife is what you use after you draw your pattern on your wood, then you go around with a knife and cut in your drawing. Next, you take your chisels and go at that. Then use the stop cut knife again.”
“So, I wasn’t allowed to use that knife. The boys were supposed to do it for me. I don’t know what the problem was, but I thought, I am not going to let someone else do this to my carving. I am going to do it to myself. I just didn’t tell anybody. I picked up the knife and did it myself. I think they just let it go.”
“That was my first carving. It was a bear with a honey bee. I still have it. My parents got me a set of small tools at that time, because the tools we had at school were big and clunky.”
Jude’s father, R. Byard Fritts, was a professor at Pacific Lutheran University. He taught music composition and theory and on the side built pipe organs in the basement. His organs were installed at churches and universities.
“When he retired he went into building organs full time,” says Jude. “My brother, Paul Fritts, has always been interested in building organs since he was 16 years old. He and my dad worked in a partnership. Eventually my brother took over the business. It is called Paul Fritts and Company Organ Builders.”
Jude took a long hiatus from carving after sixth grade. After living in Texas for awhile, she went back home and entered her brother’s shop. “I asked him if there was work I could do to tide me over for a while until I figured out what my next move would be. Paul said that he needed someone to carve. He was working on an organ for a church in San Diego.”
Jude agreed to take on the carving job. “I taught myself how to carve,” she tells me. “The design was a sea life motif and there were lots of fragile parts that broke and needed to be connected to be strong enough. There are certain structural things that need to be in place for the design to work. Branches and leaves, for example, need to be touching in certain ways or they will just break off. So, I changed it so it would work. The person who had created the design was upset with my changes. From then on I created the designs.”
That was the first of many carvings Jude created for pipe organs. She continued carving for pipe organs through her business Jude Fritts Wood Carving and Sculpture. The Gottfried and Mary Fuchs Organ at Pacific Lutheran University, located in Lagerquist Hall is her favorite project. She completed it in 1998. Fritts tells me that PLU gave her complete freedom with the design.
“I created the designs for this organ to honor those who had overcome trauma in their lives,” she explained.
If the carvings are going to be finished with oil she uses fir, oak, or mahogany. If the project is to be painted she uses bass wood. “Bass wood, from the east coast, is my favorite,” Jude says smiling. “It is like butter – a joy to carve.”
She starts with flat pieces of solid wood. The builders obtain the wood for her and cut the blanks. She transfers the design onto the flat pieces of wood using carbon paper. She notes that it is an old fashioned method and carbon paper can be hard to find these days.
If the client wants gold leaf added to the finished carving Jude does that herself. It is quite a painstaking process, requiring great patience. She describes part of the process to me.
“Gold leaf comes from Italy. It is sold in books that are hand-bound, with thin paper between each sheet of hammered gold. You cannot touch it, it will just disintegrate. A mixture of linseed oil and turpentine is painted on the wood where you want the gold leaf. You wait 10 to 24 hours until it the surface is sticky enough but not too sticky. Using a squirrel-hair brush, you pull the brush through your hair to create static. Then touch the brush to the gold leaf. Because of the static on the brush, the leaf will stick to the brush.
“Then you just float that over the area where you want the gold leaf and you tap it in with a separate brush. The process above is repeated over and over. It takes hours and hours, and lots of patience.
“There is no substitute for gold leaf. It is pretty rich. It is…gold.”
After carving for 30 years, Jude will now focus more on her own personal artwork. She has basic ideas for a seven panel series of “Transformational Images,” which she plans to work on in the Arbutus Folk School woodshop. She is willing to accept commissioned projects and she is thinking that at some point in the future she may teach a carving class.
“I have never taught before,” she comments. “I am still learning after 30 years of carving pipe. I am always still learning.”
You can contact Jude Fritts via email. Check out her website to view her many gorgeous and complicated carvings. You will also find informational videos, including a step by step instructional video on how to apply gold leaf.