Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Norman Provost has a passion for working with wood.
Provost, 75, started wood carving 10 years ago, and for the past eight years has been taking carving classes at the Northeast Focal Point Senior Center in Deerfield Beach.
“I always felt that I had some kind of artistic flair, but I didn’t have a way to express it,” said Provost. “Working with wood gives me a creative outlet.”
Having worked as a union carpenter for 10 years, taking up woodcarving was an easy transition. Provost, an Ocean Ridge resident since 2001, tries to carve an hour a day. Living right on the beach, he enjoys taking his chair, some tools and sandpaper, and sitting down there by himself.
“It’s kind of like communing with nature,” said Provost. “You have this organic piece of wood in your hand and you’re creating something. It’s very satisfying and relaxing.”
For the past three years, Provost has entered his woodcarvings in the Florida Winter National Wood Art Expo and Competition in Punta Gorda every January.
In 2014, he earned a second-place recognition ribbon for a relief carving he made of an eagle’s head. The following year he entered two works that earned him first- and second-place ribbons.
This year, he received a first-place ribbon for a large, intricate carving of a woman’s face surrounded by sea creatures, which took him two years to complete; and a second-place ribbon for a small female bust. The large carving was also up for a Best of Show award.
“As I enter my work and get recognition from professional high-end wood carvers, it validates what I’m doing, and makes me feel good that I’m on the right track,” he said.
There’s a saying in carving that Provost likes: “Let the wood speak to you.”
“As you’re carving a piece and you’re looking at it, it keeps changing, and you start to see different things, and it kind of evolves into a new carving,” he said.
Over the years, Provost has carved out a life for himself that has evolved in a similar way.
When he was a 4-year-old growing up in Newark, N.J., his father was killed while working as a pipe fitter, just four months after returning from World War II. Soon after, Provost’s mother and her six children were evicted from their home and went to live in unused army barracks near Newark Airport. About a year later, they moved into the first federally funded housing project in the country.
After graduating from vocational school with a diploma in carpentry, Provost enlisted in the Army for two years and served on a missile site in Okinawa. When he returned to New Jersey, he spent a decade working as a carpenter.
Then Provost worked for five years as a maintenance mechanic in the Hackettstown School District. He developed friendships with teachers and guidance counselors at the schools where he worked, and they encouraged him to go to college.
“If there was a boy who was getting into trouble, they would send him to me for one period a day to putter around the school and do little things, so I was informally working with some of the kids,” said Provost.
When his professional friends became aware of a position that opened up at the county vocational school for a building maintenance teacher, they told him to apply for it. He did, and was hired.
Because he had six years of experience in a trade, he was able to get an emergency teaching certificate. In order to keep it, he was required to take a certain number of courses every year. When he realized that it could lead to a degree, he took as many courses as he could each semester.
Provost began his college courses when he was in his early 30s and married with three children. It took him 10 years, but he eventually got a bachelor of science degree in vocational education from Trenton State College and a master’s in vocational education/special needs from Rutgers University. He went on to work at several high schools, teaching special needs children in a vocational setting.
At age 62, Provost and his family moved to Palmer Township, Pa. He worked as the adult school coordinator of a county vocational school, and then at the Pennsylvania Treasury Department to promote college tuition savings accounts, which was his last job.
Now that Provost and Laura, his wife of 51 years, live in Ocean Ridge, he has time to pursue his passion for woodcarving. He enjoys making carvings for his wife, their children, grandchildren and for friends.
He plans to enter three of his works in the Florida Winter National Wood Art Expo in Punta Gorda next month.
“It’s all about doing something that you enjoy. I think that in our human nature there’s a need to be productive, and that people start to fade when they lose that need,” said Provost. “I’m retired, but I’m kind of busy.”
— Marie Puleo
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. Born in Newark, N.J., in 1941. I went to Essex County Boys Vocational School, got a bachelor of science from Trenton State College and a master’s in education from Rutgers University.
Q. What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. I worked as a union carpenter, a vocational special needs teacher, a vocational education specialist, and a field representative for tuition account savings program for the Pennsylvania Treasury Department.
I’m proud of being the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree; receiving the New Jersey Vocational Special Needs Teacher of the Year award; returning to the school where I had worked in building maintenance as the supervisor of applied technology; and supervising some of the teachers who encouraged me to go to college and do more with my life.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A. When I struggled trying to pick what trade to study, it was my mom who advised me to take carpentry. Who knows you better than your family? Talk to your family and listen to them and consider their advice.
The interest you have is there. Pick an occupation that matches that interest. Dream big and have a plan to achieve your goal. I would tell them my story.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
A. On our first visit to South Florida in 2001 we fell in love with the weather, beach and the beautiful vegetation, and without a second thought we purchased our condo on that vacation.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
A. Without doubt the beach road is what I thought Florida would be like. I walk the beach road with my wife, Laura, and I can’t believe this is where we live. When we say we live in paradise, we really do.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A. I just finished reading Killing Reagan. I enjoy Bill O’Reilly’s books because they are based on historic record.
Q. What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. Having grown up in the ’50s, I love that old rock ’n’ roll.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. I’m not sure who said it: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When I faced hardship and turmoil in my life, I would tell myself, “Just get going.” It wasn’t always easy, but it worked for me.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Working in the Hackettstown school system, I was encouraged to continue my education by the professional staff. Most influential was a guidance counselor named Frank Joseph. We are still good friends today.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, whom would you want to play you?
A. Brad Pitt — just kidding. Jon Voight. I think he could tell the story of a street kid from New Jersey.