The delicate craft of wood carver David Esterly

Wood sculptor David Esterly

"In every composition there's always a moment of panic about three-quarters of the way through," said the artist David Esterly.

On a rainy day, in his barn in the rural hamlet of Barneveld in upstate New York, David Esterly is at work on one of his creations. When asked what it is he does, he replied, "If I say wood carver, lots of people think I'm a chainsaw carver, or that I carve little Santa Clauses or something."

Are you an artist? "I'm a sculptor, put it that way."

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A finely-detailed wood carving by sculptor David Esterly. David Esterly

He showed correspondent Faith Salie one of his latest works, a 18th-century-style rack of the kind that used to hold letters. "It's like an in-box, anything you'd use to save not only correspondence, but just keepsakes.

"Also, it's a portrait of a person by the person's possessions – a portrait by surrogates."

This is what Esterly imagines Thomas Jefferson's letter rack might have looked like. It has a necklace sent back by explorers Lewis & Clark whom he dispatched to America's wild Northwest Territory. It's a portrait of a president delicately preserved in pale, white wood – Linden wood to be exact.

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A David Esterly carving. CBS News

Salie asked how long it takes Esterly to do one of his carvings.

"I'll never answer questions like that, sorry," he said.

Really? "Yeah, really."

"Why is it such a closely-guarded secret?"

"It's not a secret; it's just that I can't think in those terms," he replied. "I mean, I'd then become very depressed about it."

Let's just say the sculptures take months, even years to create, and sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, each work commissioned by private collectors. All this from a man who never studied carving formally. In fact, he owes his illustrious career to a chance encounter while studying literature in London.

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CBS News

"I was walking down Piccadilly with the woman who would later become my wife, when she suddenly grabbed me by the arm and said, 'Let's go see Grinling Gibbons.' I thought it might have been a former boyfriend, so I was sort of on alert! But in fact, she steered me into a beautiful church from the 1680s.

"And I look up and there was this extraordinary tangle of vegetation carved in wood. Grinling Gibbons turned out to be the greatest British wood carver."

Utterly taken with Gibbons' work, Esterly spent eight years in an English cottage, teaching himself to carve.

Gibbons, he says, haunted him: "He was always coming into my workshop late at night and saying, 'You know, look the way I do, but I do it better than you do,' sort of whispering over my shoulder."

And then, fate stepped in. In 1986 a fire in the royal palace of Hampton Court destroyed some of Gibbons' masterpieces. Esterly was chosen to restore and even replace several of the master's creations.

"It's when I reached that moment at Hampton Court that I was, oddly enough, most able to identify with what Gibbons was doing, and free myself from him," he said.

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Wood carver David Esterly. CBS News

Salie asked, "Have you ever done a self-portrait? I'm thinking about how intense your moustache would be!"

"Are you kidding? That's my idea of hell," he laughed. "I'm profoundly uninterested in myself. I've taken refuge in my work, and that's where I want to be found."

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David Esterly with Faith Salie. CBS News

Unfortunately, that refuge is now being taken away from David Esterly. It was during his time meeting with "Sunday Morning" that Esterly says he first noticed symptoms of what was later diagnosed as ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Walking up the ramp to this house I had felt strange pains in my midriff," he said. "I noticed that words were not being formed with the unconscious ease that we normally form words.:

In a follow-up interview, he asked not to appear on-camera. "You know, nobody should feel sorry for me," he said. "I'm pretty old, have led a very interesting life. And you gotta die sometime."

With the help of assistants, David Esterly has just completed a commission for Bentonville, Arkansas' Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. At age 74, he finished his final work.

He said, "I've lived my life by the connection between brain and hand. And now, I'm ending it by precisely that connection being snatched away from me. So, to me, there's something richly meaningful about that."

       
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato.