Upperco sign maker designs plaque with Keeler's seal

CARVING THE COAT OF ARMS FOR A CARDINAL

January 02, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

As Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler prepared to leave for elevation to the College of Cardinals in Rome, Howard H. German III was hunched over the drawing board in his Upperco studio.

As "Woodcarver to the Cardinal," as the 48-year-old Baltimore County artisan laughingly describes himself, Mr. German had 10 days to redesign and carve the prelate's coat-of-arms.

The 2-foot-by-2-foot plaque had to be hung above the marble episcopal throne in the Basilica of the Assumption in time for Cardinal Keeler's first prayer service there Dec. 1, after his return from Rome.

"It took 60 hours to do the job, and I got it done just in time. I was in there at noon hanging it up," said Mr. German, an ebullient Pimlico-area native who became a custom wooden sign maker and prize-winning artistic carver almost by accident.

Carved signs of all sizes flow from the four-man company he operates from a small shop in the outbuildings behind his home. The signs mark businesses, offices, homes and housing developments throughout the region, but two of his best-known are at each end of the Bay Bridge.

Measuring 5 feet by 12 feet, they were carved in clear California redwood, the best wood for outdoor signs, Mr. German said. Each sign announces simply, "Chesapeake Bay" in a scene of water, shoreline and clouds. The Western Shore sign includes a two-masted schooner, while its Eastern Shore counterpart has a single-masted skipjack.

"Shows the difference in boating habits," Mr. German quipped.

He never thought of becoming a woodcarver and sign maker. His ambition was to be an Air Force pilot after graduation in 1968 from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, but imperfect eyesight thwarted that.

For two years, he taught ninth grade biology at Pimlico Junior High School, then went into direct-mail advertising until 1974, when he founded a printing company.

By 1981, "I had had it up to here with other people's letterheads, envelopes and business cards," Mr. German said. "I sold my shares and retired to my farm to contemplate my next move."

For three years he supported himself by brokering printing contracts. One day on a whim, he said, he used a school stencil set and an old oak board to carve a sign for his Tall Oaks Farm.

Friends and neighbors were so impressed that they persuaded him to carve for them.

"I had never made a thing with my hands before, and they were very primitive compared to now," he said. But when he found that he enjoyed the work and others enjoyed the results, he became serious about sign making as a career.

"I had no woodworking or art training, so I started reading books," he said.

In 1984, he set up a business with a partner and incorporated the next year. Over the years, his company, Signs of Our Times, evolved into a four-man, employee-owned firm. Mr. German employed three men as apprentices when they left high school, trained them as sign makers and made them company officers.

Between sign projects, Mr. German works at chip carving, a craft dating from medieval times. Using extremely sharp knives, chip carvers produce clear, crisp designs with rapid strokes of their blades, an art that leaves little room for error and no room for correction.

He has won dozens of awards for his chip carving. Last March he took first prize in an international contest in Ottawa for his carving in a piece of sugar pine of a bas-relief scene. In the scene, a wagonload of logs approach a log cabin surrounded by a carved representation of a horse collar. He called it "Williamsburg 1878" and said the scene was copied from a pen-and-ink drawing.

Mr. German became "Woodcarver to the Archbishop" in 1989, when the pope named Cardinal Keeler an archbishop.

Wayne Ruth, president of Hunt Valley Masonry and a prominent Catholic layman, had commissioned Mr. German's firm to do signs and was also familiar with the artisan's prize-winning artistic carvings.

As chairman of the Basilica Historic Trust, he commissioned Mr. German to carve the new archbishop's coat-of-arms, which he presented as a gift to hang above the episcopal throne. When Archbishop Keeler was promoted, Mr. Ruth asked Mr. German again to produce a different design that designates a cardinal.

"I was shocked at what he produced," Mr. Ruth said. "I knew he was good, but I didn't know just how good. It's museum-quality work."

Mr. German said the hardest parts of the cardinal's basswood seal were the cords and tassels that dangle from the gallero -- the broad-brimmed hat atop the cardinal's shield.

"I carved 226 spirals on those cords along with the tassels and that took a lot of time," he said.

While sign-making techniques have advanced to the point at which designs can be created on computer, Mr. German said he wants to innovate the ancient art of wood-carving. To that end he spends his spare time working on a scene he calls "Settling the Western Maryland Frontier."

So far, the mahogany carving has five layers, each with part of the action, that fit together like a puzzle to show the whole picture. The effect is almost three-dimensional.

"It's in what I call very deep relief," Mr. German said.

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