Carving a niche

A profile of carver Antonio Caruso, who designed a Canada Post Christmas stamp.

Antonio Caruso's Christmas stamp design was seven years in the making

Canada Post's annual Christmas stamp features a Madonna and Child engraved from lime wood by Italian-Canadian sculptor Antonio Caruso. ((Canada Post) )

You might want to be more careful when you're tearing open this year's holiday card from Great Aunt Mildred — try not to rip the stamp. Take an extra long look at the baby Jesus on this year's Canada Post Christmas stamp. The baby is part of a nativity scene that took seven years to sculpt.

As a young art student in his native Italy, Maple, Ont.'s Antonio Caruso never imagined he'd be part of Canadian philatelic history. But now the image of an infant Jesus he carved is gracing 24 million copies of this year's religious-themed Christmas stamp.

"For me, it was a great honour," says Caruso, 57, in Italian. "I couldn't wait for this stamp to come out."

In Caruso's brand new studio north of Toronto, you can still smell the fresh plaster on the walls. There are 17 carving tools on the table. He picks one up and nicks off the edge of a piece of wood. "Do you see how the wood seems like butter?"

The infant Jesus is nowhere to be found among the secular paintings and life-sized sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi that greet visitors when they walk in. Caruso eagerly goes to the back room to retrieve it. "I keep them here because they're precious," he says of his miniature nativity, stashed away in a cardboard box. Each of the 23 pieces is wrapped in layers of protective tissue paper. One by one, he unravels the tissue around St. Joseph, and a shepherd girl. The girl is his favourite, because he likes the detail in her basket of grapes. "This is the baby," he says as he unwraps. "Imagine how precious and delicate it is."

Its actual size is about five centimetres long, about half the size of your index finger, and even thinner. Caruso got the smooth finish and fine detail by rolling fine sandpaper around metal pins to get into different angles. It took so much care that his daughter Cinzia needed to hold his magnifying glass so he had two free hands to melt away the rough edges. Caruso says he never kept track of how long it took to create the baby itself — just that he worked on the whole set in his spare time for seven years.

Lime wood is his material of choice because it's soft and doesn't have any knots like other types of wood. It's easier to carve and Caruso likes the finish. "It gives an effect as if it were ivory, it's a luminous shine," he says.

"[People say] I should paint them, but honestly, I prefer them like this. When you paint them, you can't tell that they're wood anymore," Caruso explains, saying they could be mistaken for factory-moulded plastic. "I think it would lose the uniqueness of the chiselling of the work."

One reason Canada Post chose Caruso's design is that those tiny chisel marks in the wood are still visible. "Because they are so small, they tend to translate very well into stamps that are equally small," says the stamp's graphic designer, Joseph Gault.

"If we had taken a much larger statue you never could see the knife within the wood," says Alain Leduc, manager of stamp design and production at Canada Post. It was Gault who facilitated Caruso's move from the homes of art collectors to stamp collectors. After poring through hundreds of gallery archives, he found Caruso's nativity among hundreds at Toronto's Cathedral Church of St. James. It has one of Canada's largest collections of nativities. Gault says he chose Caruso's work because of the intense detail in the traditional Italian style.

Sculptor Antonio Caruso, fourth from left, is congratulated by Vaughn Mayor Linda Jackson, centre. A number of Caruso's artworks can be found in the city of Vaughan. ((City of Vaughan))

"I knew that if I could find [an Italian style] crèche that they would have that sort of old-fashioned Italian sculpture feel that you'd see in Florence," Gault explains.

Caruso is cagey about how much Canada Post paid him for his design. All he will say is, "My compensation is when collectors appreciate my work."

Caruso is originally from southern Italy and was trained in classical and baroque art at the prestigious Brera Fine Arts Academy in Milan. His first break in Canada came in 1981, with shows in Thunder Bay, Edmonton and Calgary. He made trips back and forth from Italy until settling near Toronto in 1994. His work now hangs in churches in and around the city.

Gault immediately fell in love with Caruso's sculptures. "They're highly expressive figures, they're classically positioned so it doesn't take too much to get the right expression in the stamp," he says.

Caruso says the stamp is one of the highlights of his lengthy career. "For me, it was a great honour," he says.  "I couldn't wait for this stamp to come out. I was anxious, but we had to keep it quiet."

Caruso has been carving since he was just seven.  "My [home]town has many churches," he says. "It has a convent dedicated to Saint Bruno and there are the most beautiful works in marble and wood. When I would look at them it would inspire me." But he had to overcome obstacles to do it.

 "I didn't have knives because my mother forbade it," he says. So he hung around factories, searching for metal packing strips, then pounded the edges with rocks until they were sharp enough to carve with.

Half a century later, Caruso is enjoying his success. He's busy sending Christmas cards proudly displaying his baby Jesus. And as he looks forward to seeing his work on three more stamps in December 2009, he's still trying to grasp his place is in Canadian stamp history.

"Collectors from all over the world are already sending me e-mails, and it's great because you suddenly find yourself making history," Caruso explains. "It fascinates me because I think I still haven't realized how important this recognition is that Canada Post has given me."

Mary Gazze is a producer for CBC-TV in Toronto.