A master’s magic

TUESDAY, MAY 22, 2007

Third-generation woodcarver Petr Shiva creates magic in his home studio in south Spokane. From restoring antique furniture for private residents to carving safari friezes for the Davenport Tower, Shiva fashions hardwood into beautiful objects of art.

A Russian immigrant, Shiva moved to the United States from Kazakhstan in 1992. After five months in Los Angeles, he and his family moved to Spokane for a quieter life. In 1998 he started his own woodcarving business. Today he can barely keep up with the demands for his masterly skills.

“I went to college to be an electrician,” says Shiva, in his only slightly accented English. “My father was always trying to push me into learning something different than what he did, because it’s hard work. But I guess it’s a gift from God and you can’t really go away from it. I couldn’t work as an electrician. I was good at it, but I never liked it.”

With a master carpenter for a father, and a woodcarver for a grandfather, Shiva grew up learning the craft. He never used power tools, just a chisel. Even now, power tools are used just for prep – after he cuts the wood he uses a chisel to carve all the designs. He learned with hardwoods such as oak, beech, maple and birch.

“You have to understand wood,” says Shiva. “Each different wood has its own structure, its own density. Most people work on the softwood, like when they teach woodworking in classes. I learned my work on hardwoods instead of softwoods. So for me, to do work on softwoods is easy.” He smiles, his muscular build reinforcing his statement.

Shiva worked on the restoration of the Davenport Hotel and returned with the new Davenport Tower. For the Tower, he created intricate rosettes at the bases of the chandeliers, and Roman molding for the ceiling. He carved a safari frieze, replete with African wildlife, which took a month and a half of labor. There are sixty of the safari friezes decorating the Davenport Tower today.

Plaster ornamentation is connected to woodcarving. First the wood is carved, and then liquid rubber molds are made, then cast out of hydro-stone gypsum cement. Shiva also does all the casting right in his studio.

For the grand ballroom of the Davenport Hotel, Shiva created ornate crowns for the doors and balconies, and elaborately hewn sconces. He also did restoration work for the Hall of Doges, which is designed after the Venetian Doges Palace. He is now involved with the restoration of the Fox Theater, working on details of the studio walls.

Apart from helping restore Spokane landmarks, Shiva’s main business is in antique restoration, and carving mantelpieces and fireplaces for private clients. His studio is strewn with wood and plaster of all shapes and sizes. Plaster elephants and lion heads – leftover from the Davenport – line shelves. A huge antique mirror waits for its frame to be restored. A partly carved door depicting an elk is a work in progress. Sometimes he creates his own designs, other times his clients come up with an idea.

“Usually people find something in a magazine, and they want something like that, or change the design a little bit here and there, put in their own ideas,” says Shiva.

Shiva has restored such renowned pieces as a huge one-of-a-kind cabinet, built especially for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. He also restored two grand pianos, one originally owned by Senator Jefferson Davis, and the other by pianist Franz Liszt, and an 1860s table that is only one of three existing, one of which is in the White House.

Often, restoring antiques and woodcarving go hand in hand. An antique table may be missing a leg, so Shiva will carve a new one. He may add new shelves or pigeonholes to a secretary. His photo album displays many such works.

“So you see this is a restoration of an antique, but at the same time it’s a woodcarving,” says Shiva. “It’s kind of hard for me to divide the two, as it’s all mixed together.”

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