Carving out chess pieces of history

Artist makes a game out of venerable Army-Navy rivalry

February 25, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

Carved chess set draws crowds to gallery You might not think a chess set would be the kind of show-stopping artwork that would double or triple the visitors to a small art gallery on Main Street in Annapolis, but what sits in the display window at Gallery 1683 is no ordinary set piece.

The board, carved by local artist Amy Maddox, depicts the Army-Navy rivalry through an even older war game.

A 2-inch-tall John Paul Jones and George Washington fill the spaces of kings, the Navy "N" and Army "A" the queen. The other pieces are miniatures of buildings at each academy, including Bancroft Hall and the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. Instead of nondescript pawns, there are Naval Academy plebes and West Point cadets.

Sandra Pezzoli, the gallery owner, said a host of visitors, lifetime Annapolis residents and midshipmen stop in daily to look at the chess set, which has been on display since last month.

"We thought it was completely delightful and wonderful," Pezzoli said. "The joy for us is putting it in the window. It draws a crowd. It's just one of those things that captures the imaginations of Annapolitans and visitors alike."

Although most love it, some who come in, particularly midshipmen, wince at the price tag: $1,500.

But that didn't deter the fiancee of a recent graduate, who bought a bigger set for $2,500 as a wedding present, she said.

The idea for the carvings came to Maddox suddenly, she said. Having lived in Arnold since she was 5, she grew up visiting the John Paul Jones crypt and "running around at the academy on school trips." Surrounded by friends and family who served in the military, she thought a chess set - with its strategy and piece names that symbolize war - would be the perfect way to characterize the Army-Navy rivalry.

"So I thought about it, did some drawings and it just kind of came together," she said.

Maddox, 31, plans a series of other Naval Academy-themed carvings that could augment the chess sets. They include shadow boxes that show a plebe standing proudly in front of Herndon Monument, which first-year students scale in a ritual marking the end of their indoctrination as midshipmen.

Another will show a midshipman standing at attention in front of the academy chapel.

She might reprise the chess set, too, except this time it would pit sailors against Marines.

Maddox also carves Santa Claus statuettes with Naval Academy mascot Bill the Goat on their heads or in their laps, and Santas holding court with the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps animal mascots.

She says she enjoys such folk art projects, carving while sitting on her couch and watching television.

Maddox has won more than a dozen carving awards for her work making birds, including some that have been shown at Salisbury University's Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, the holy grail for bird carvers.

Maddox, who works at the Nordstrom at Westfield Annapolis Mall while she pursues a psychology degree at the College of Notre Dame of Baltimore, began to carve when she was in high school, learning from her grandfather.

"He wanted one of the grandsons to take it up and got me instead," she said. "I had always loved to paint and draw, and then I picked up a piece of wood one day. I carved a feather, and it took off from there."

When her grandfather asked for a bird, she obliged, and he has kept her first bird. Since then, nearly all of her subsequent bird carvings have been recognized in shows across Maryland.

That's what drew her to Pezzoli, who collected Maddox's work before opening Gallery 1683 on Main Street in July 2005. In addition to the bird pieces, she also loved the watermen.

"They are usually holding bushels of crabs or shucking oysters," Pezzoli said. "We live on the Eastern Shore, and I thought her work really captures the spirit of people who make their living from the water."

Pezzoli said she is happy to display Maddox's work in her gallery because she is one of the few female carvers in the region.

"It's usually a man's art form," she said. "But we love everything she does. It's really unique."

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