To call Santa Claus some chip off the old block would be an unkind cut—it takes wood artist Bill Apelian 100,000 thoughtful strokes to bring just one St. Nicholas out of a new block. “He basically starts out as a square of wood, and then he’s not,” the carver says of the Old World figurines, which populate his Linden Wood Studio. It’s an honest-to-goodness Santa’s workshop in Greenville, where he fashions Father Christmases, finding relaxation amidst his chisels, gouges, and mallets.
“This is really intense,” the affable Apelian says, caressing a paused Claus, one of three in progress at any given time. “You have to think three-dimensionally all the time. You’ve got to make sure you leave enough wood when you carve, you can’t put it back. When you take it off, it’s done—now you’re going to have a beanie instead of a hat.”
Apelian, 63, began whittling on a whim 25 years ago. Next thing you know, his daughters—Becky and Betsy, grown now—asked him to sculpt a cat, then a horse, then a Merlin. Soon, Apelian found his niche with Nick, a historical figure with an appealing backstory. Born around 280 A.D. in southern Turkey to a wealthy family, Nicholas gave away his riches. He also became a bishop and, later, patron saint of children, sailors, maidens, and wrongly condemned prisoners. “He was just a guy who’s trying to help,” says the former Marine captain and director of BJU Press. “And God called him to be a pastor.”
Better yet, according to an ethnographer quoted in an Armenian publication, Nicholas’s mother was Armenian. Fancy that—Apelian’s Armenian, too, tracing his roots back a few thousand years to Syrian Christians who migrated to Eastern Europe. The family tree also includes German branches, which explains his Santas’ distinctive Old World characteristics. The statuettes, 11 inches to nearly 3 feet tall, are magical and gnomish, complete with elfin attire and, of course, copious amounts of facial hair. He colors each by hand using artist oils or stains, the latter a nod to his influences—fourteenth-century German master Tilman Riemenschneider and Apelian’s Great-Uncle Martin, a German carver who died in the 1950s.
“When I was a kid, and these were sitting around the house, I would stare at them for hours,” he says, holding one of Uncle Martin’s figurines, a Middle Ages–looking jester, circa 1930s. Apelian also carves sayings or scenes into some of his jolly basswood elves. Some carry props, such as miniature hand-bound leather books, which are reflections of Apelian’s wife, Dawn, who is a children’s author and novelist.
“I think he’s brilliant,” she says, before echoing Bill’s words about how a Christmas character emerges, almost by magic, from the block: “I always try to give them a name based on what they look like. You can call him Santa, call him St. Nick, St. Nicholas.” By any name, his handiworks, about a dozen each year, are heirloom value, from $1,000 to $3,600.
But let’s be honest, we’re talking Santa Claus. He’s priceless.
The Linden Wood Studio, thelindenwoodstudio.com