When photographing the murals at the Starry Plough and La Pena, I noticed the carved picket fence across the street. I knew that there had to be a story and that in time I would learn the story. I have!
Sheri Tharp grew up in San Jose. She moved to Berkeley in the 1980s and began teaching wood carving. In 1979 she had apprenticed with Berkeley woodcarver and teacher Ben Shaw. She started teaching his classes in 1984 and took them over in 1989 when he retired.
In the early 1990s, a student came to her with a special request.
His name was Kurt Kennedy. He was retired from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where he worked on the linear accelerator.
He had a broken picket. It was from a fence at his mother’s house in Kensington that had been built in 1942.
The fence had been designed by Charles Sayers.
Sayers was born in Scotland in 1892. He moved to Seattle in 1924 and to California four years later. He lived in Carmel, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, and Alamo. He was highly regarded as a carver, furniture builder, and teacher who used an absolute minimum of power equipment. He died in 1971.
Tharp taught Kennedy to carve and he made the replacement picket for his mother’s fence. But she wasn’t done. Why not a redwood picket fence in front of her house? Why not indeed.
Between 1993 and 1995, Tharp and her students and family hand carved the redwood pickets and installed the fence, more than 50 years after Sayers designed a similar fence for Kurt Kennedy’s mother to carve in Kensington while her sons were overseas fighting World War II.
The fence Is now more than 20 years old. A few pickets have broken and been replaced, and all have aged and weathered. It is stunning.
Many of the pickets are signed and dated by the students who made them.
Since we are here visiting the fence, it seems foolish not to take a look at the wood carving workshop where Tharp works and teaches.
The box housing fliers for the carving school on the fence features the grapes with leaves motif that is the first project Tharp teaches her students. The grapes with leaves project was handed down to Tharp by her mentor Ben Shaw.
Shaw made these panels, showing the progression of the first carving project.
Tharp’s website has photos and videos and information about her ongoing workshops and classes.
So there you have it.
A wonderful story about a carved picket fence that started in Kensington with a fence designed by Charles Marshall Sayers in 1942 then carried 50 years later to Sheri Tharp who had been trained by Ben Shaw. The children shown in the photos installing the fence are 20 years older. The fence is weathered. But there it is.
And it is a wonderful story about a woman who as a young and struggling artist came to Berkeley and was able to make a life. We are losing that Berkeley. Some care, some don’t. But we have been oh so much richer and better for the generations of young artists and writers and musicians who have found Berkeley as their home.
My friend “dug” the fence photos and the tool photos. And the story. “You know, sometimes you think that a story is just starting, that this fence is new. And then you come to understand that the story was going on before you knew it. That you are in the middle of it, not the beginning. Maybe even you were in the story but didn’t know it.”
OK – very zen. But what about the post, my friend?
another brilliant story for a saturday morning. Tom, you have such an amazing eye and a good way to get all the details of the front story and the back story. thanks for this. brought a huge smile to my face!!!!
Cutting wood with well forged sharp steel is certainly a pleasure. Thanks for the trip to your studio, Sheri and Tom. mb
Thank you Tom! This is how we keep craft alive in our community – by unearthing it and telling artists’ stories. Now I want to commission some wood carving in my next project (I actually have one in mind!)
I am one of Sheri’s students and carved four of the pickets. Was it really 20 years ago?? It is a beautiful part of the Berkeley streetscape now. And if you want to carve or even think you might, you won’t find a better teacher than Sheri and her studio.
Not only is Sheri an amazing woodcarver but she has taught hundreds of kids in her shop and at LeConte elementary over the years, including my son, Tyler. I have a bunch of his/her projects around my house including a comb, a snake, and a dish that holds my paperclips on my desk. Thank you Sheri!