Out of the rubble

Gavin Simms
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Bonavista man carves himself a new life

Sometimes salvation falls straight out of the sky, and it's a matter of being there to catch it.

A man's saving grace can come from any direction, and take just about any imaginable shape.

For Wilbur Hobbs, opportunity rolled in on the beaches of Bonavista.

In 1993, it was hard times. He'd lost his job at the fish plant in Port Union, in the wake of the cod moratorium. He was left with no employment, no money and a family to support. "Rock bottom," is how he puts it.

Top photo, Wilbur Hobbs stands outside his workshop with a whalebone he'll be carving shapes out of before long. Bottom photo, "What you give away, you've always got. The receiver will never forget," says Wilbur Hobbs. Photos by Gavin Simms/The Packet

Bonavista -

Sometimes salvation falls straight out of the sky, and it's a matter of being there to catch it.

A man's saving grace can come from any direction, and take just about any imaginable shape.

For Wilbur Hobbs, opportunity rolled in on the beaches of Bonavista.

In 1993, it was hard times. He'd lost his job at the fish plant in Port Union, in the wake of the cod moratorium. He was left with no employment, no money and a family to support. "Rock bottom," is how he puts it.

He strained his eyes to find light for a long time after.

Then, one sunny day in late summer, he went for a walk along the shore, as he often did. It was his escape route when the world closed in.

While combing the beach, he came upon a set of moose antlers washed up on the rocks.

For no real reason, he picked them up and brought them home. For a month they sat in his shed.

Then, one morning, Wilbur sat down with the rack in his lap and began to carve. He didn't know what he was making or why he was at it. He'd never carved a shape in his life.

It was the start of something he couldn't stop. He finished a moose and moved on to an eagle. He cut out a bluebird only to start on a sparrow.

As days went by, he found himself spending more and more time with a chisel in one hand and antlers in the other. Eventually the shed became a workshop piled to the windows with folk art made from antlers and whalebone: keychains, buttons, brooches, necklaces, and on and on ...

For the first time in his life, the 45-year-old felt he was doing what he was meant to. He'd found his purpose, and it was the greatest therapy he could ask for.

To Wilbur, carving was something he saw as a hobby, but as the years passed, he created so much he figured he owed it to himself to put his art up for sale.

In 1997, with Bonavista about to host the celebration of Newfoundland's 500 years of European settlement, Wilbur figured it was the perfect time to try and make a little money. He'd keep on stockpiling until The Matthew sailed into Bonavista harbour.

That summer, he did well. From there on, Wilbur was out selling his wares at festivals and craft sales across the island.

The journey

Wilbur's life made for a dark chapter in 1998. He and his wife went through a difficult divorce and he ended up alone. He coped by spending eight to 10 hours a day in his shed, chipping away.

"It was a very low point. But at the very lowest point I began to shine the best - putting all my energy into carving."

He wasn't just doing it for himself. There were two kids he was dedicated to. He says with great pride that he's never missed a child-support payment in 10 years.

All the while, working quietly away in his shed, Wilbur never once thought of giving up.

"I believed in what I was doing and I believed that I would shine, despite the critics."

But as much as it helps, it's never been solely about the money for Wilbur.

"Out of necessity came creation," is how he puts it.

This summer was the best one yet for sales.

In what used to be the house he lived, boxes and bags spill over with ornaments and animal carvings.

Someday soon he plans to convert the old place into an open-concept art studio.

Wilbur's been working out West for the past six years, as cook on an oil rig for half a year at a time.

He still loves carving as much as ever, and has found a good balance with regards to work.

Although he doesn't spend eight to 10 hours a day in his shed like he used to, Wilbur says a little progress every day is better than none at all.

All told, he figures he's completed 55,000 pieces over the years.

He's happier than he ever imagined he could be and owes it all to a talent he never knew he had.

But Wilbur doesn't give himself credit for any of it. He's just a man on a journey, as far as he's concerned.

"When you're humble, that's when you're the strongest. When you're a mountain there's nowhere to go, but when you're climbing, you're humble and it's a journey," he says with the look of a man standing at the summit.

"If it all collapsed right now, I can say I had an excellent journey."

Organizations: Port Union

Geographic location: Bonavista, Newfoundland

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