The Arcadian Chess Set

In November of 2019 I shot and killed a deer for the very first time. The decision was not a trivial one for me, especially considering I had been a vegetarian in my twenties for the duration of around 8 years. I believed then, as I still do today, that people are too far removed from the process of where our food comes from. If we want to eat meat, we should in principle be willing to confront the act of killing and processing the animal itself. 

And so, following a successful hunt on my brother’s farm in Missouri, I wound up with a freezer full of more venison than I had bargained for as well as a set of 8-point antlers. Initially, I didn’t have a particular plan for the antlers. Mounted deer antlers on a wall isn’t really my vibe. But then I recalled some of the stunning ivory and antler carvings I had seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and at The Cloisters museum here in New York. Among these carvings were medieval chess pieces that really changed the way I thought of the game. Further research into the art form introduced me to the Lewis Chessmen, an iconic medieval set of pieces that was carved from ivory and discovered in Scotland. Though I am at best a lackluster chess player, I do really enjoy the game and felt I then had both the inspiration and the materials to take a shot at creating my own set.

Antler is not an easy material to carve. It is tremendously dense and stubbornly unyielding. Despite this…and partly because of this, I find the finished product very rewarding and quite beautiful. Antler possesses a texture and quality that exists in a realm that is both organic and mineral. After the antler is initially cut into smaller pieces, each piece is then roughly shaped with a 1” belt sander. From there, further definition is accomplished with the aid of a dremel tool. The final steps in the process involve delicate carving with an X-Acto knife (resulting in hundreds of now completely dull blades) and applying a smoother texture finish with fine grit sandpaper.

The work is incredibly time consuming. While a single pawn may only take 30 minutes to make, larger pieces like knights, bishops and rooks can take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours each to cut, carve and finish. Carving the king has taken upwards of 10 to 12 hours to finish.

I chose the name of the set for two main reasons. First, I was born and raised in the very small and rural town of Arcadia, Missouri. Though the area is a poorer region of the state (much less the country as a whole) it is a pocket of great natural beauty that is very rich in nostalgia for me. The second part of the inspiration comes from the Greek province after which my hometown was named, which took on mythic qualities over time. The name Arcadia became synonymous with an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness, an Edenic vision of nature. While this all sounds very lofty and poetic, it fits nicely with the slow, unhurried process of carving the pieces and the unique reconnection with nature it provides.