Carving out a good cigar

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Artist: With wood, paint and a...

November 24, 1996|By Carl Schoettler

Carving out a good cigar; Artist: With wood, paint and a 0) tricky imagination, Robert Taylor sculpts stogies as well as fish that you would swear were the real thing.

In this town where rolling cigars used to be a cottage industry, Robert Taylor is the last cigar maker.

His cigars are long, fat and luscious -- and carved out of wood.

Taylor, a wood sculptor and painter, creates cigars that look good enough to smoke. Some, in fact, look as if they have been smoked. He carves half-smoked Churchills and well-chewed butts so realistic they seem to be still burning.

"I enjoy tricking the eye," he says. "I carve 'em as I see 'em."

He makes them for fun and for sale. On some of them, you can twist off the ash and put safety matches inside, or whatever suits your fancy.

Lately he's been making beautiful satiny mahogany humidors with a clutch of big, thick, basswood faux cigars inlaid on top. He's sold four at Max's Trading Company, the cigar store run by Ron Furman of Max's on Broadway. One remains at $395.

Taylor was inspired to do the boxes because he's making a wooden cigar-store, uh, "figure" for Max's cigar shop.

Not a wooden Indian. A dog. Max's logo is a hip-looking bull mastiff, wearing shades, with the biggest cigar north of Havana clamped in his mouth.

"I've been researching dog books for something that looks similar," Taylor says. He hopes to have his wooden cigar-store dog done in the next month.

"Right now I'm getting to the point where I can see it," he says. "Finding the object inside the piece of wood. You know, you're looking at this big block of wood and you think, 'OK, where do I start?' I know it's in there somewhere."

Taylor works in a big studio in an old machine shop tucked under a hillside in Druid Hill Park, behind where Clipper Mill Industrial Park burned down.

He's 43, he wears glasses, short-cropped hair, a mustache and a faintly exotic-looking Van Dyke-ish beard. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he took some art courses in the 1970s. Then he came down here and started learning woodworking.

For more than 20 years, he was an accomplished cabinetmaker, making fine period reproduction furniture in the style of Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Chippendale.

"In 1992," he says, "I decided to set up my own studio and do stuff I wanted to do."

What he wanted to do is carve fish. He likes the way fish look.

"That's the big thing I do," he says.

His fish shapes are anatomically correct, he says, "But when it comes to painting, I do whatever I want."

They're often realistic. His brown trout looks as if it has just come out of a stream.

His fish are all framed in boxes that make them look like vaguely Mexican primitives.

Taylor has sold a couple of hundred fish; many, oddly enough, at a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.

He took a truckload out there a couple of years ago, and galleries snapped them up, bought them all outright.

In Baltimore, he's floated them in a window at Tomlinson Craft Collection. And a school of his fish swim above a bar at the Rusty Scupper.

Taylor likes to paint, too, especially canvases like sideshow banners, which also can be deceptive.

"I've always been fascinated by the graphics they use," he says. "And the whole illusionary aspect of what they're doing. Sucking you in and when you get in it's not what they're telling you it is."

"I love wood and I love painting," he says. "That's the stuff that I do. I carve wood, then paint it."

About this, at least, Taylor is not fooling. Paul Dickson calls them mall assault vehicles: that elite class of Explorers, Scouts, Blazers, Range Rovers and Troopers. And in his latest book, "What's in a Name? Reflections of an Irrepressible Name Collector" (Merriam-Webster, $14.95), the Maryland author provides greater understanding of the history preceding this terrifying trend.

In the early days, cars were named after makers like Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet. After World War II, car names began emphasizing such glamorous destinations as Monte Carlo, Malibu and Newport. Next came the wildlife -- the Impalas, Mustangs and Super Bees -- followed by the extra-terrestrials: Starfires, Novas, Polaras and Satellites.

We've finally arrived in an age where many car names have no meaning. And, according to Dickson, we like our Sentras, Cieras and Supras even better if they arrive with GLs, LTs and ZXs.

Why Bonneville? After the salt flats where Pontiac set endurance records in 1956. Why Taurus? What happens when two Ford executives determine their wives were both born under the same Zodiac sign.

"I love car names," says Dickson, who is one of the most impressive name collectors around. This is the man who made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for documenting the longest list of synonyms for a single English word: 2,317 words and phrases meaning "drunk."

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