EASTHAM — Michael Harnett’s father was an illustrator, and his dad’s ability to tell a story using brush and paint rather than pen and words is evident in Harnett’s own artwork — with one significant difference: Harnett works with knives and blocks of wood. He whittles his stories, capturing fleeting human interactions filled with a sense of amused empathy.
“Ideas come to me from everywhere,” Harnett says, standing next to a carving that depicts an engineer and an electrical worker bickering over the underground wiring for a streetlamp. “It seems everywhere I go, I just see moments and think, ‘That’d be great!’ ”
Walking a visitor from room to room through his Eastham house, Harnett points out his creations. On walls, tucked between books on shelves, and on end tables, ruddy-cheeked caricatures with exaggerated hands, feet, noses, and ears invite viewers into unlikely scenarios.
Some hark back to his years as a city-dweller. Besides the streetlamp scene, there’s a painter teetering on scaffolding that’s let go, and a contractor with a jackhammer guiding ducklings across the road. Before retiring to the Cape in 2011, Harnett oversaw traffic control at the New York City Dept. of Transportation.
Harnett captures more than interactions with people. His creations include birds: evening grosbeaks, a sparrow, a downy woodpecker. They are realistic works of art that capture the natural world.
Harnett is a birdwatcher. “I always carry binoculars in my car,” he says. And he studied birds closely during a course in taxidermy, part of his preparation to become an exhibit designer at the American Museum of Natural History. But before he carves, he Googles, poring over photographs to get the details right.
Harnett still has some of his earliest carvings — small scenes of “cowboys and Indians,” made when he was a child. He first tried whittling when he was a Boy Scout. He remembers making two neckerchief slides, an Indian and a crow.
Then he picked up H.S. “Andy” Anderson’s How to Carve Characters in Wood, and he has been whittling ever since.
“I loved the tiny little scenes in Anderson’s carvings,” he says. Anderson, a cowboy, created in-the-round scenes starring skinny-legged characters with expressive faces. His influence is obvious in Harnett’s three-dimensional pieces.
For Harnett, carving is a pastime best shared with others. Before his move to the Cape, he read in a woodcarving magazine about a carving club in Barnstable. When he arrived, he learned it was no longer meeting.
No matter. Like a pied piper of whittling, Harnett has gathered a growing group of friends who carve together.
“I’ll mention carving and some folks say they’d like to learn, others say they do it themselves,” he says. His response is always, “Well, let’s get together.”
Whittling, Harnett explains, is about much more than the finished product. It’s about the time spent with others, everyone’s hands busy with a project, while advice, good stories, and conversation are passed around.
For a while, Harnett invited people to his home to learn the basics of the craft. As their skills evolved, they would still come by to work on projects. Recently, Harnett has begun offering classes at the Eastham Senior Center on Friday mornings.
He always starts beginners with a simple bird carving, which is then affixed to a walking stick — Harnett has a large collection of sticks, gathered over time.
“It’s a straightforward project,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to feel discouraged.” Harnett has seen a beginner finish a smooth bird in one session. Another person might take six months to finish that first bird. “It takes the time that it takes,” he says.
The finer details are completed with paint rather than intricate carving.
“You can do a lot with the painting,” he notes, pointing out the differences between the more complex feathers painted on a wading-bird handle versus a beginner’s chickadee finished with smooth solid colors.
The wood has been donated, so there is no cost for materials in his class. Advanced carvers may bring their own tools, but Harnett recommends starting with a utility knife. It’s the only thing the students have to buy.
“It’s not a big outlay,” he says. “And it gets you where you need to be.”
These days, Harnett says most of his carving time is spent with students. He also carves every Thursday via Zoom with his daughter, who lives in Manassas, Va. And he brings his current carving projects to the beach when he goes. He looks forward to bumping into friends, new and old, who want to join him there, whittling.
Michael Harnett’s classes meet from 9 a.m. to noon at the Eastham Senior Center at 1405 Nauset Road. The course runs through June, then will pause for the summer and resume in the fall. Harnett says anyone can join at any point.