FORT KENT – When the top finishers at the 2004 Biathlon World Cup leave northern Maine at the end of a week of competition in March, each will carry away a piece of St. John Valley art.
Nancy Paradis, a retired high school English teacher, has been commissioned to carve six wooden figures for the top three finishers in both the men’s and women’s competitions.
More than 200 athletes and coaches are expected in Fort Kent when the town and its 10th Mountain Division ski lodge host the international event. In addition, thousands of spectators are anticipated.
The races will be broadcast around the globe.
It’s all a bit humbling to the local woodcarver, who just last year retired from 23 years of teaching English to sophomores at Fort Kent Community High School to pursue her carving full time.
“When I was approached last fall to carve the trophies, I was hesitant,” Paradis said from her home on the shores of Cross Lake this weekend. “Most of these athletes are from Europe, where the carvings are extraordinarily good [and] I was worried my style of carvings are inappropriate.”
Paradis describes her style as one that transforms pieces of wood, tree limbs and even small twigs into caricatures. The faces can be seen everywhere in her home – on shelves, on tables and even carved into a tree in the front yard.
“I was told I would not have been asked if they did not want what I did,” she said.
Each wooden trophy will be of a full-figure biathlete in colorful ski garb. Each will stand 7 to 8 inches tall with sunglasses perched rakishly on their heads, holding ski poles and with their rifles slung over their backs.
Despite an admitted lack of skill with a pen – “I can’t draw worth beans,” Paradis said – she has sketched out a rough drawing for each trophy.
“I always have the picture of it in my head,” she said. “Sometimes I will ask my husband or one of my sons to model and hold a certain pose for me.” She considered a moment, then added, “I’ve asked perfect strangers to do the same thing.”
Paradis will use basswood from a Madawaska mill for the raw materials.
She said she remains amazed and humbled by the request.
“I’ve done just about every kind of [art] medium available,” she said. “But I just love the feel and smell of the wood.”
Ten years ago, she visited her stepmother in her hometown of Camden and spotted a carving knife on her father’s workbench. Her father had recently died. When Paradis returned to Fort Kent, the carving knife came with her.
“From that point on I have carved every day,” she said. “I read a lot about carving in books, and it was a lot of trial and error.”
From the moment she picked up that first knife and piece of wood, Paradis said, she knew she wanted to carve faces. So, with the full support of her family, she plunged ahead.
“I was very, very lucky to have a family that kept looking at what I carved and said it was good and to keep it up,” she said. “If they had been honest and told me how bad it really was, I would have quit.”
The carving soon moved from hobby to full-time passion. The mother of five boys, Paradis became a familiar sight on the sidelines during high school soccer games, leaning against her car hood, whittling a piece of wood.
“People would always tease me about that,” she said. “They could tell where I had been because I would leave behind a pile of wood shavings.”
The Fort Kent woman’s craft was not limited to the outdoors, either. “The [school] administration would let me carve during teacher workshops at school,” she said with a laugh. “They knew it would keep me well-behaved.”
Often are the times, Paradis said, that she has seen a face and wanted to immortalize it in wood.
“I love to go sit at the mall and just watch the faces go by,” she said. “One older man must have thought I was a stalker, the way I just kept looking and looking at him.”
Pieces of the carver’s woodwork are scattered around the world, with carvings in Hawaii, Washington state and Europe.
“It’s kind of neat when you think about it,” she said. “This old country bumpkin from Camden, making things that end up all over.”
Paradis said she comes by the talent honestly – her grandfather was a shipbuilder on the Maine coast. “I guess wood is in my grain,” she said. “I can’t hold knitting needles, but hand me a knife and just watch.”
Paradis is not sure what she will feel when her six carvings are handed out on the winners podiums in March. But she knows what she wants the athletes to feel.
“I hope when they look at these trophies they remember Fort Kent … not just being in a race, but how beautiful it is here,” she said.