By Bill Sterling
Special to the Eastern Shore Post –
Art, says Ellen McCaleb, needs inspiration to devote oneself fully.
The 52-year-old McCaleb realized this following her husband’s death in 2012, when she shelved a notable fish carving career to concentrate on her startup business that makes growth charts for children.
A native of Virginia’s Eastern Shore who had transplanted to New Hampshire, McCaleb was recognized as one of the world’s top fish carvers, practicing a craft founded in Europe at the turn of the 19th century. She would get orders from anglers who fished the world over and released their trophy catches but wanted them remembered in great detail through McCaleb’s carvings. Her fish carvings have been shipped to 16 countries among six continents.
Then in 2012, her husband, Jonathan Fischer, died after a short battle with stomach cancer. The hardest thing she says she had ever done was to take each of her two children, Evelyn, then 9, and Nathan, 6, by the hand and lead them into their bedroom to say goodbye to their Dad.
“After Jonathan’s death, I didn’t have anything to offer. The muse was gone,” said McCaleb. “I had two years of work lined up, so I committed myself to completing those fish. But when I got to the last fish, and the buyer had not yet made a down payment, I called him and said, ‘I am sorry, but I simply can’t do this. I just don’t have it in me right now.’ ”
“When you make something, there is this outpouring of yourself. When Jonathan died, I didn’t really have anything to give.”
In 2008, McCaleb started a growth chart business. It’s taken a considerable amount of time, but the business now has four employees and does a good trade in customized growth charts on Etsy and Amazon. Her company sold more than 18,000 growth charts last year. “I even own a forklift,” said McCaleb.
“My business was my constant escape after Jonathan’s death. It was my creative outlet during those tough times, through his diagnosis and death. It did a lot to lift my spirits,” said McCaleb. “I saw the future in making growth charts. There were bright colors.”
But, spurred by three phone calls in the same week asking if she would consider carving a fish, she has pulled out her tools and started shaping fish again. Included among those tools is a drawknife once used by her grandfather.
“The calls may have been God telling me it’s the right time, but I also had been thinking that if you invest 10,000 hours in a craft and develop a mastery of something and then not use it, what a waste that is,” said McCaleb, now remarried. “I was also asking myself, ‘Can I still do this?’ I am still quite young, and I was thinking, ‘Really, for the rest of your life you are not going to carve a fish?’ ”
Apparently, her customers believe she can, because McCaleb flatly stated the price would be $7,500 per carving and don’t bother to haggle. Two said yes and the third said that sum would cut into his fishing budget. “I told him no problem, I understand, but I made up my mind if I was going to do this, it better be worth my time and effort.”
“Sometimes when you live in a small town, you have a small town mentality and think, ‘I can’t charge that much.’ But unlike growth charts, you can’t mass produce fish carvings. Each one is unique.”
The same profusion of color she professes to love that she saw in the growth charts is now evident in her fish carvings. “It’s exciting to figure out the texture you want to represent in the carvings. The same species of trout can show different colors. It’s like cooking and putting together a recipe so it works.”
Carving wood fish effigies is an art form that flourished in Scotland and England around the turn of the 19th century. “When I first started carving fish in 1997, there was only one person in North America doing this,” said McCaleb.
A Childhood Spent in Nature
Some of McCaleb’s earliest memories are of fishing with her dad on Craddock Creek on the Eastern Shore. By the age of 9, she was fishing regularly for red drum, speckled trout, flounder, trout, spot, and croaker. Sometimes she would venture to the seaside and fish along the barrier islands for bluefish and striped bass.
“Fishing with Dad and spending time with people outside of the normal hustle and bustle and daily grind was really special. My dad didn’t just catch the fish, he had to learn everything about them, eviscerating them to see what they had eaten while cleaning the fish for dinner that night.
“Our freezer was stocked with venison from deer killed on the farm. My father hunted ducks and geese that ended up on our table. We heated the farmhouse with wood we cut nearby. I helped him split and stack the wood. We were always busy. Watching TV was not allowed unless it was a big football game. I can remember him yelling to his kids, ‘It’s a beautiful day. We are going to pick bayberries to make candles.’ ”
“When I was a teenager, I started my own bullet manufacturing business, smelting down metals to make bullets for regular customers. Being idle was just not accepted in my family,” said McCaleb, whose father died from cancer three years after her husband’s death.
In addition to tagging along with her dad on fishing trips, there was another experience that greatly influenced the direction of McCaleb’s life. She babysat the children of Mark McNair, a noted decoy carver who lived one creek north.
“I always thought Mark had the perfect commute,” she recalled. “I would imagine him leaving the house in the morning with a cup of coffee and walking across the yard to his shop. When his children wanted to build a saltwater aquarium, Mark would drop his tools and go get his cast net to catch some fish. It was a family-friendly way of earning a living. Actually, it’s more about adopting a lifestyle than earning a living.”
She carved her first fish, a brook trout, from a piece of 2-by-4-inch wood in the fall of December 1996 and showed it to McNair. “It was pretty crude by my standards today,” McCaleb said, “but when I showed it to Mark, he was able to critique it without squashing my ambition. He could have easily told me it was a train wreck, but he didn’t. And I am grateful!”
McCaleb graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English, but also took a few art and architecture courses as electives. After spending a year in France, she settled in Pennsylvania, where she worked as a manager of investor relations for a venture capital investment firm.
“I was commuting to the city and working a relatively high-tech job, exactly the opposite of how I grew up,” said McCaleb. “It really boils down to you don’t know what is possible until you are exposed to it. I was fortunate to see how Mark McNair lived his life. And when I was in the business world, I knew there was something different out there. So I started to carve at night and saw an opportunity to turn carving fish into a business, and ultimately a way of life.”
McCaleb recalls how the journey started, “There are three major collections of fish carvings in the United States. I got in a car and drove to Ohio and Michigan to see these collections.” And she was glad for the effort. “I saw carvings by over 10 carvers from the United Kingdom. It was such a learning experience to see how each one created a piece … their individual style.”
Something Good Came From the Corporate World
The one positive thing that came out of working in the corporate world was meeting her husband, Jonathan, who also worked at the firm. They relocated from Pennsylvania to a rural area in New Hampshire, where he taught Spanish in high school and she carved full-time until two children came along; she then worked part-time.
Life was good until cancer cut short her husband’s life at the age of 52. “There is no way around grief,” said McCaleb. “The shortest way through it is to actually walk through it. For me, this took the form of a lot of walking down the dirt road across the street … no one but the trees to hear me. And so each day I devoted time to yell at God, talk to Jonathan, cry and sometimes yell at Jonathan.”
“Yes, I have remarried, but I’m still allowed to say that I miss Jonathan. In fact, it was Jonathan, who five days before he passed away, said, ‘I will pick someone out for you.’ And he did. For me, there’s a lot of humor in this story. He sent me Dennis, who is a builder. Being a builder was not on my list of top 10 things I was looking for in a spouse. But our house happened to be one of the town’s oldest, and Dennis beautifully remade and renovated it. So again, Jonathan was looking out for me.”
Though Dennis Whitcher, 59, may seem not at all like her first husband, McCaleb said there are some similarities. “When I first met Dennis, I told him, ‘Jonathan left me this really odd thing, maybe you can tell me what it is.’ It was a .22 rifle, a .45 pistol, so it had this folding stock on it.”
“He looked at it and said right away, ‘That’s a 1921 Marble Game Getter. It’s my favorite gun. I’ve owned 10 of those.’ So there were all these signs pointing in the same direction.”
Today, with a new start in carving fish, McCaleb and her husband have moved back to her birthplace in Craddockville. Whitcher is renovating the house where McCaleb’s grandmother lived, next door to the house where she was raised. He hunts deer on the same farm where McCaleb’s father hunted and raises oysters on the creek that stops just yards away from the front door.
The renovated house will include McCaleb’s carving shop. Her daughter is off to college, and her son attends school a few miles away, often working in his mother’s workshop as an apprentice carver once classes let out.
Although she lives in a land renowned for its decoy carvers, McCaleb said she really never had an interest in carving ducks, nor did taxidermy appeal to her because it uses plastic forms.
She works exclusively in basswood, carving the fish to the exact specifications of the trophy catch submitted by the angler. One of her tricks is to use rose thorns for the teeth of the fish.
“Each piece is custom and personal for both me and the client. I’m looking to create an heirloom, which requires a lot of time and energy. But I am happy to say I have rediscovered the joy I once found in fish carving.”
“Part of my recovery and the path to carving again was knitting this new family together. It was like pulling at threads and joining them together,” explained McCaleb.
McCaleb sees the world in color again, not the dreary grays of the time following her husband’s death.
“There is a line in one of my all-time favorite movies, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’: ‘You better get busy living or get busy dying.’ But first, as the Bible says, there is a season for everything.”