Late woodcarver May’s legacy
lives on through his Santas
May died in September 2011,
but his sons still carve
(December 2013) – Lights glowing at the Ohio Theater, the smell of grease outside Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop, the splash of water from the Broadway Fountain – Madison, Ind., residents and visitors strolling westward down Main Street can depend on experiencing these sensory fixtures. For more than 25 years, they could also find a gentleman sitting in the window of a small store, carving figures out of wood.
Photo by Vanessa Torline
These Santas were carved by
the late Bruce May. They are
among the collection on display
and for sale at The Little Golden
Fox store in Madison, Ind.
Bruce May opened his art store, Folk Art By May, in 1985. With the help of his wife, Dianne, May created and sold carvings big and small, conventional and offbeat, but always uniquely his. He was most prolific in carving wooden Santa Claus figures, all of which were painted into rosy-cheeked, red-garbed perfection by Dianne.
Over the decades, they created an assortment of figures likely numbering in the thousands. But the detailed, highly textured Santas proved unquestionably their most popular items. The couple built a loyal base of repeat customers eager to purchase their annual Santas.
May died in September 2011, but the woodcarver’s legacy continues. His two sons, Ted and Matt, carry on carving as their schedules allow, and Dianne stills paints each piece for them. “Right after Bruce passed away,” Dianne said, “everything he did was just gone. People came and bought it all.”
Folk Art By May remained open for another year, but the inventory of Bruce May’s originals dwindled through sales to Madison Chautauqua attendees and holiday gift shoppers. Dianne decided to close the shop after the 2012 Christmas season.
“It was just time. No point in having an empty store.”
Madison store owner Cara Fox sees the darkened art shop every day from the windows of her store, Little Golden Fox, on Broadway Street, where she sells vintage goods. After Bruce May’s passing, she built a relationship with Dianne. This year, the Little Golden Fox is the only business in Madison carrying the May family’s carvings and Dianne’s hand-painted holiday cards. They sit on a shelf across from the checkout counter, surrounding a framed photograph of Bruce May hard at work on the holiday favorites.
Years ago, Fox received a carved Santa from her best friend, a third-generation collector of May’s work. Soon she began collecting the annual Santa designs from Folk Art By May for herself.
This photo of Dianne and Bruce
May was taken in March 2000
for an article that appeared in
the April 2000 RoundAbout Entertainment Guide.
“I think you’d be surprised by the number of people in Madison who have some pretty extensive collections,” Fox said. She enthusiastically named families who share her love of the Mays’ craftsmanship. “They’ve made some incredibly beautiful pieces. At Chautauqua, people would line up at the door to get the yearly Santa.”
“Some collected just the yearly carvings,” added Dianne, “and some collected everything.” She maintains a good memory for the names of people and places she has sent May Santas, witches and Easter bunnies over the years. “They’re all over, from people here to friends in Europe. Some are in the Gulf from Hurricane Katrina!”
Dianne and her late husband originally hailed from Camden, Mich. May played professional baseball for the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s and early 1950s before his service in the U.S. Army took him to Germany. May then spent 30 years as a railroad engineer, working for New York Central, Penn Central, and Conrail. He took up carving at this time, but only as a hobby. It wasn’t until after his retirement from engineering that he and Dianne settled in Madison and began new and unanticipated careers in the art business.
May was a self-taught artist, a fact that likely accounts for his distinctive carving style. His figures traveled widely with tourists, and May carvings grew recognizable among discerning art lovers.
Dianne was often surprised to get calls from curators who, having learned of their store, wanted examples of their art. “I always told them, ‘If you don’t like it, send it back.’ No one ever sent it back,” she said. Galleries on both coasts and in between now display their work, and it isn’t unusual for her to enter a house in Madison and find something she painted decorating a bookshelf or kitchen table, particularly during the Christmas season.
Dianne continues to send out the Santas that she and her sons create together, swinging into The Little Golden Fox with a basket and plucking carvings from the shelves whenever distant friends and customers request them. Fox said she enjoys helping people discover May and Dianne’s folk art, knowing the pieces add May’s special artistic sense to every home in which they stand.
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