Ka-sae-luk 

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Joe Montanino carves fruits and vegetables in Ka-Sae-Luk, a 700-year old Thai art form. Above a watermelon flower and leaf combination.

A young artist digs into the Thai art of fruitcarving

According to Thai lore, for the Royal of Festival of 1364, artist Nang Nopamas decorated a floating lantern with a variety of fruits and vegetables carved to resemble a delicate three-dimensional flower. Floating down the river in the moonlight, the lantern looked like a huge water lily, and so charmed King Phra Ruang that he decreed the carving technique a heritage of Thailand, a tradition to be taught to all Thai woman and passed down through the generations. Seven hundred years later, Ka-Sae-Luk, which translates to art carving, is still a thriving art form in Thailand.

San Antonio artist Joe Montanino is neither a woman nor Thai, but he can remember the moment he fell in love with fruit carving: "When I was nine years old I saw a chef on T.V. carve a flower out of an onion, so I thought that was pretty cool, I always wanted to try it."

For our interview, he carved a large oblong watermelon, demonstrating the two Ka-Sae-Luk styles: Three-dimensional carving and chiseling. The first he used to create a wide flower at one end of the watermelon, each individual petal carved to just the right depth so that the inside of the bloom is deep red, while the edges fade out pink to white; the effect is as if a real flower had somehow been set inside the watermelon. (It looks like a chrysanthemum, but when I ask Montanino what kind of flower it is he laughs and says, "I don't know, I just drew it.") A wide, graceful leaf curves around the flower, cut with the chiseling technique, which is more angular and flat, and uses the stark contrast of the watermelon's white and green skin to create fine lines. Montanino says he draws his works on paper before carving them freehand into the fruit or vegetable, and that most are inspired more by the shape of the fruit and "what will look good" than anything else.

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Cantaloupe rose
Talking to Montanino, one has the sense that he was always going to be a fruit carver. He talks about how his grandfather taught him to carve wood figurines as a youngster, and shows me a long nosed tiki head, carved from pine wood in clean, steady lines. On the base, in ballpoint pen, it says "Joe 1994." Several years later, still dreaming of that onion, he taught himself to carve fruits and vegetables from a book he purchased online.

Hoping to make a career of his obsession, Montanino has just launched Artmachine, a fruit carving business he believes will appeal to restaurants, hotels, and caterers. In the meantime, he has a night job working as a chef at The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant, and he spends his days honing his skills on practice fruit.

His website www.artmachine.xbuild.com (a quick study, Montanino built the site himself using software manuals) reveals a panoply of carved fruit and vegetables; a lovely, if somewhat beak-heavy daikon radish cockatiel, honeydew roses, and butternut squash vases. In one photo, half of a round watermelon forms a base, while a small oblong watermelon has been used to create the chiseled basket-like vase that sits on it, holding a flower arrangement carved from red beets, yellow golden beets, white turnips, and apples. It's absolutely stunning. Montanino says the average time for a carving is about four-and-a-half hours, and that most pieces will last five days if kept moist and refrigerated.

Does the impermanence of his art form disturb Montanino? "No, it's like ice sculpture, the fact that it's only temporary makes it more beautiful," he says. "You have to enjoy it while it lasts. Besides, I know I can always make another one."

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Daikon radish cockatiel with a carrot beak and peppercorn eye
This answer is fitting: There's no tortured artist here. At 25, Montanino seems more like the average boy genius. He admits to daydreaming about Ducati motorcycles, and his oil paintings (again, he learned from books) depict scantily clad models and movie stars in the fleshy 3-D of photo-realism. And, he keeps his carving knives in a padded aluminum briefcase, which makes it look like he should be - in his all black attire and slicked back hair - on his way to carry out a hit.

Inside the case, which he assembled himself, there are slots for each tool - 15 fluted French chisels and five Thai knives. Each of the tools has a very specific use; one wooden-handled knife features a long skinny blade, roughly the shape of a sandpiper's beak, which Montanino says is designed to pick out watermelon seeds. Another, rather fancy knife of brass and stainless steel is specially weighted and balance for carving down into the fruit - its blade is a menacingly sharp triangle, reminiscent of daggers and intrigue.

Although he donates some of the fruit to family or restaurant events, most of Montanino's work ends up in the trash. Which is not to say he doesn't value it:

"That watermelon flower looks tasty, do people ever eat the art?" I ask. "NO," he replies.

"Really? Your housemates never sneak a mango?"

"NO."

"You've never been tempted to take a bite before you throw it away?"

"NO."

"Why?"

"I don't know, for some reason I don't feel comfortable eating it after I spend all that time working on it."

By Susan Pagani


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