My grandfather, Matthew Renna, is a wood carver and everyone loves his work. He’s a good carver. He will make me little butterflies and give them to me on my birthday. When he takes them to shows to sell them, people stop to look at the carvings and he will talk to them. He usually gets them to smile really big. He gives them joy. Carving is what he has done all his life -- he simply loves to carve things.
My aunt helps me with my work or anything I need. She focuses on taking care of her three girls. My uncle has his own business. He helps the community sometimes, especially through his carpentry work. My dad helps him work sometimes as well.
INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW RENNA
A class assignment to write about some local person who was considered a hero precipitated this interview with Mr. Matthew Renna, master wood carver. Although he has garnered many blue ribbons for his craftwork, I sensed that the distinction of being considered his granddaughter’s hero outweighed the significance of all the ribbons. Melanie Clark, Matthew’s granddaughter, and I talked with him on an afternoon in November 2003 at his workshop in Mississippi.
“I asked God to give me something that was uniquely mine and something that I would never become tired of.” So he began to carve birds - and rabbits - and fish - all the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea. From the most delicate petals of a dogwood blossom to the most intricate feathers of a hummingbird, the craft of carving had claimed Matthew Renna as its own.
“I was born a Yankee,” he hesitated to tell me, a dyed-in-the-wool southerner. “I remember fishing with my grandfather off the New York harbor. He would take as many as three boats and stay on the seas for several weeks at a time. When he came back home, we would eat fish for a long time. I have a picture of me as a young boy holding a shark that was taller than me. At dinner I told Grandpa the meal he cooked tasted like steak. He replied that it was that shark I was holding in the picture. He cooked that shark five different ways and all the dishes were good! My grandmother was the one that told me, "It’s not what goes in our mouth that is a problem, it is what comes out." That’s good advice, if you think about it.
“I met my wife, Mary, while I was stationed at the air force base in Columbus, MS. She was a student studying to be a pharmacist at Mississippi State College for Women. After we married, I was immediately shipped overseas. I was a fireman that rescued downed aircraft. What goes up, must come down and I was on the ground ready to catch wayward ‘birds.’”
“After serving my country, I came home and did what my father thought would be best; I went to air conditioning and repair school to learn the trade. But installing central air and heating in buildings just wasn’t my calling, and I yearned for something else to fulfill my creative abilities. That is when I asked God to grant me a gift - a talent. In 1964 I began to carve. I wouldn’t show you the first piece I carved. It was rough! Practice, practice, practice…that is what it takes to make perfect. That and studying from nature and from books.” Books of birds and nature line the shelves in his workroom. He continues, “Every piece is unique. I never carve anything the same way as another.” He turns to his granddaughter, Melanie, and says, “See what studying for your work can accomplish?”
“In 1979 I received a commission to carve forty birds for the Mississippi Christmas tree that was placed in the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.. They must have been a hit because somehow they all ‘flew away’ with people in the capitol city.” None returned to Mississippi.
His business card reads ‘Eager Beaver, wood carver - Matthew and Mary Renna’ and I questioned his choice of words. “Where did I get that name? Well, I’m going to show you something that very few people know about.” He pulled a dull red book from a briefcase. On the cover was written Eager Beaver Regiment: The Regimental History of the 1303d Engineers. “Only seventy of these books exist and they document the work of the 1303d Engineers that built all the bridges for General George Patton in World War II in Europe.” I looked inside and the 1952 copyrighted book opened to a picture of several servicemen in action. With tears in his eyes, he said, “That one is Joe Renna, my father, and the one by him is his cousin. I am proud of the work that all those boys did. I thought the name, Eager Beaver, fit my artistry as well.”
And fit well it does. Boxes and shelves full of carvings ready to bring joy and wonder to a new owner await the next craft fair. He belongs to the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, which encourages the highest standard of excellence in craftwork. He frequently demonstrates his wood carving at the Arts and Crafts Gallery where he is an exhibitor. As Melanie relates, he manages to make everyone smile.
As we turn to leave his woodworking shop, he tenderly handles an intricate carving of a father bird with berries in its beak that is perched just above four baby birds with beaks wide open. “This represents me with my four girls. It is not for sale. Someday my family will inherit it.”
I touch the fragile petals of the dogwood blossom he gave me and remember what he told us. “What is the best wood to carve? None is the best. They are all beautiful in their way. Some just take a bit longer to carve.” So also it is with people, Matthew Renna. And I smile.
This interview was conducted by teacher Jan Arthur and Matthew Renna's granddaughter, Melanie