Geoff Semonian has carved a career out of whales, eagles, and other wooden creations
There is a saying that the most important ingredient in any great recipe, product or other creation is love. Cape Cod woodcarver Geoff Semonian seems to embody that philosophy. In an age when so many home furnishings are mass-produced, Semonian takes great pride—and a good deal of time and effort—in meticulously crafting custom-made items for his clients.
In business on the Cape since 2009, Semonian hand carves and paints signs and other specialty items from his two studios: one in Harwich, the other on Provincetown’s MacMillan Wharf (Pier), overlooking the water. During an early-April visit to the Provincetown studio, the waterfront weather was cold, icy and windy; the day served to demonstrate that signs and other products made of wood and intended for display outdoors require sturdy materials and solid construction.
Inside the studio, one of several artist sheds on the pier that once stored gear for local fishermen, many of Semonian’s signs and other carvings are on display. Lining the walls and shelves is a collection of hand-carved birds, sea creatures, and pineapples as well as eagles and other symbols of Americana. Semonian makes quarter boards, too, and address signs of all size and description. To further illustrate his range, the artist’s business card features images of two signs he has made: one reads “welcome;” the other, “keep out.” “I’ll make a sign or a product that can make people feel welcome or unwelcome,” he says, “or anything in between.”
One sizeable creation that greets visitors at the studio’s entrance is a five-foot plaster carving of a man wearing a plaid shirt and overalls; he’s sticking out his thumb like a hitchhiker. “That,” Semonian says, “is my former neighbor, Richard, from Eastham. I used to see him when I worked at a local restaurant. Many knew him because he was seen hitchhiking on the Cape’s roads. I carved him when I had free time several winters ago.” In the past, Semonian displayed “Richard” outside the shed until inclement weather, and wear incurred from curious customers, eventually took its toll.
What led Semonian to woodcarving? “It kind of found me,” he says of the trade. “I come from a long line of people who make stuff. My family owned a machine shop in Watertown that specialized in making parts for model airplanes, and my great uncle, Stan Sparre, was a well-known bird carver on the Cape. He was my hero. He was an accomplished illustrator as well, and he continued to carve birds well into his seventies.” Sparre passed away in 2011 at the age of 88.
A resident of Harwich, Semonian enjoys the precision and attention to detail his work requires. “There are no happy accidents in woodworking,” he says. “This work is so purposeful and definitive. I think that’s what I love most about it.”
To create a given sign or art piece, Semonian selects from a wide variety of potential materials, including hardwood and driftwood, brass and gold. Hanging on the wall is one striking piece he made from driftwood that features several delicately carved and painted whales. “Intricate details always take the most time in woodcarving,” Semonian says. “Everything is completely custom and built to last. We use solid brass mounting hardware and strong materials that will protect not only your sign, but your home as well.”
Semonian also takes pride in the tools he uses. “These chisels are designed with specific widths, grooves and tips,” he says, “and they come from countries all over the world. They fit perfectly into each detail that I carve.” For tools, Semonian says he generally looks to the Robert C. Eldred Co. of East Dennis to find what he needs.
After graduating from Chelmsford High School in 1994, Semonian attended School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, both in Boston, for a period but decided that route wasn’t for him. Making his next step, he attempted to find a place to live north of Boston, but through an acquaintance came across an opportunity to rent a home in Truro. He arrived on Cape Cod and has never looked back.
For the next five years, Semonian worked under the tutelage of his great uncle at Stan Sparre Bird Carving in Falmouth, and also for Son Signs in Eastham, and Sandwich-based wood carver Paul J. White,. Over the next decade and a half, Semonian also worked as a bartender at a few local restaurants, including the The Captain Linnell House and the Old Jailhouse Tavern, both in Orleans, to supplement his income while he made plans to start a woodcarving business of his own. At one point he even commuted between Truro and Watertown for a year—that’s 120 miles—to work at his family’s shop, Semco Model Engineering. Eventually, Semonian had honed his craft enough to go into business on his own.
Semonian says his long journey from apprentice to artist has been challenging, but he has also learned a lot. “I came to the Cape to be an artist,” he says, “but I had no idea how to do that. The marketing and business part was the toughest for me.” He credits the time he spent tending bar for helping him learn how best to interact with the public. “Bartending gave me great experience in sales and in working with people,” he says. “It taught me the importance of recognizing the needs and wants of the customer.”
At the studio, Semonian demonstrated the intricate nature of his work by showing how all of his tools fit precisely into each nook and cranny of the products he makes. He says one of the most important elements of his commissioned work is that he follows the client’s exact specifications. “I like to think that the customers tell me what to do as opposed to me convincing them what they want,” he says. “I tell them ‘think of me as a chisel in your hands’. People have a good idea of what they want, and a lot of times they bring designs to me. By using quality, strong materials and translating the design they want into their woodcarving, I can create a product that meets the customer’s exact needs.”
Today, Semonian’s woodcarving clients hail from across peninsula, and represent all income levels. “I get to work with so many great people,” he says. “But when someone saves up enough money to buy something from me, that’s the best.” Semonian’s individual carvings range from $35 for a tiny whale, to $3,000 or more for a large commercial or residential sign featuring lots of detail.
Over the years, Semonian has completed many commissioned pieces, including a sign for a dog park in Chelmsford, his boyhood home, to a replica of the codfish carving displayed at the State House in Boston. But he says he is most fond of a specific line of sea creatures he creates. “I love the whales,” he says. “They are beautiful subjects and they really lend themselves to the art of woodcarving.” Semonian has at least one carving of every kind of whale species found along the East Coast in his collection but says humpbacks are among his favorites due to the level of detail he puts into them.
Semonian says he feels Provincetown is the perfect location for his studio. Among a large community of small, local businesses, he feels right at home. “Almost everyone around here that owns a small business is a dream chaser,” he says. “That’s the one thing we all have in common.” His studio’s scenic location doesn’t hurt. “It’s really great to see a lighthouse, the Pilgrim Monument, and the ocean right outside your front door,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to work where I do.”
Geoff Semonian’s studio is at 4A MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown, and is open from April through October 31, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open daily in summer, the studio is open from Friday to Monday in April and May, September and October. In the offseason, visitors can find the artist at his studio in Harwich, at 463 Long Pond Drive. For more information on Semonian’s work, visit capecodwoodcarving.com.
Matt Taylor is a freelance writer from Marlborough.