Folk Art by May

Mays' hand-carved creations
continue to fascinate customers

By Elizabeth Nachman
Contributing Writer

MADISON, Ind. (April 2000) – Imagine an elephant with antlers and a sleigh. Sound far-fetched? Well, Madison, Ind.-based folk artists Bruce and Dianne May created just that for a customer in Florida.

Dianne and Bruce May

Photo by Elizabeth Nachman

Dianne and Bruce May pose
in their Madison art studio.

While they concentrate on hand-carved Santas and more traditional animals, they will attempt just about anything at least once.
Born and raised in Camden, Mich., Bruce May played professional baseball with the former St. Louis Browns during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He then served in the U.S. Army and played on the European baseball team while he was stationed in Germany.
May later went on to become a railroad engineer, a career that lasted 30 years. Over the years, he worked for New York Central, Penn Central and Conrail. May spent most of his years on a steam engine.
"Diesel made it easier to work but took away the nostalgia," he said.
During this time, May carved as a hobby. However, becoming a full-time folk artist was the farthest thing from his mind until he retired.
May and Dianne, whom he met in Camden, moved to Madison more than 15 years ago after May had taken a severance and retired from the railroad. They chose Madison because they had fond memories of vacations spent at Clifty Falls State Park. The couple also loved the historic homes downtown and the quaintness of the little river town.
"And, believe it or not, the weather was better here than in Michigan," said May.
May describes himself as a completely self-taught folk artist where anything goes. "Whether that's good or bad, I don't know, but it's mine," May said.
He can often be found searching for wood to use for his carvings along the nearby Ohio River. He also purchases wood from a local sawmill. May likes to use basswood for items that will be repeated, since this type of wood has no grain.
Once he has obtained the wood, he cuts it down to a specific size. He then anchors the wood in a vice, which holds it while he uses various sizes of gouges to carve the fine details that bring each object to life. While May often draws a pattern to follow, he will sometimes just sit down and start carving.
Walking along Main Street, you might catch a glimpse of May in the window of the couple's shop, Folk Art By May, located at 409 W. Main St. He spends many hours perched on a chair next to the window tediously carving his works of art. After he has completed an item, Dianne will take it home and apply the finishing touches. She applies jesso to the unfinished carving, sands it down and then paints it with artist's acrylics. Before it is fully complete, she uses a finishing coat and stains it to look old. Dianne says she enjoys painting at home so that she can work on other projects while waiting for an item to dry.
The couple has had their shop for almost as long as they have lived in Madison. They were in their present location for one year before moving to a larger shop next door. That shop took over their space. However, they found that they did not need such a large building and moved back.
Their shop is filled with May's creations and also features a few works by other artists. The store hours vary, but you can often catch them by chance or by calling for an appointment.
The Mays have exhibited at both wholesale and retail shows in the past, including the Valley Forge (Pa.) Gift Market, the St. James Art Festival (Louisville), and the Madison Chautauqua of the Arts. They have also been featured in several magazines, such as Midwest Living and Early American Life. Often, they will recognize one of their pieces when a particular house is featured in a magazine.
The Mays sell their wares to stores and museums all over the United States. Currently, they have a variety of pieces ranging from small wooden Santas to pieces more than three feet tall in Period Collections, an interior design store in Houston.
May says that folk art is quite coveted in Texas, as well as along the East Coast, although their pieces have sold quite well in the Midwest. They have a large following of customers who collect their hand-carved Santas, and each year a special Santa is introduced.
"Bruce and Dianne have created the most delightful collection of Santas, angels, and animals I have ever seen," said Connie Lynch, a past customer. "Whether it is a yearly Santa, an ornament or a whimsical reindeer, there is sure to be something for everyone to discover in this unique shop. Madison is very fortunate to have such renowned artists in town."
While they will continue to produce the best sellers, the Mays strive to introduce at least 20 new figures each year.
In addition to Santas, May usually has a nice selection of angels, cats, dogs, roosters and arks. Prices start at $22 for ornaments, $28 for Santas and can go as high as $600 for a three-feet-tall Santa riding on the back of a reindeer. The average Santa ranges from $60-$85.

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