Carving a Niche

In trademarked style, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville destinations offer guests a vibrant, relaxing getaway adorned in all things tropical. The festive theme is carried through each of Buffett’s 14 establishments, from Las Vegas to Cancun, Mexico. Although far from these warm beaches and vacation hot spots, pieces of the Tri-State can be found among the tropical decor. Serra Designs, a polymer resin casting company based in Henderson, Ky., and owned by longtime Evansville resident Jose Serra, has been creating, carving, and hand painting tavern signs, parrot sculptures, and those infamous fruity drinks for seven years.

Serra, 53, was born in Cuba and grew up an artist, drawing and painting as a child in Miami. He attended Miami Dayton Junior College, studying commercial art and advertising. There, he discovered woodcarving. He was intrigued by the skill required, and the difficulty of the art form kept him interested. After winning third place overall in an art show, he landed a position as a master carver at Karges Furniture in Evansville. “It was like being in a carving school for 15 years,” Serra says. He later accepted a position with Koch Originals as the furniture designer and new product manager, a position he held until mid-2003, when he was downsized. Serra then started his own furniture design company, Serra Designs.

In April 2004, he took over a defunct polymer resin casting company’s equipment and turned Serra Designs into a business with more than 100 annual clients, including the Department of Defense, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

Serra Designs employs eight artisans, including carvers, sculptors, and painters; some have been with the company since its inception. Serra Designs takes a concept through the steps of custom design, fashioning masters, creating molds, and casting the final pieces.

What was it like to discover your calling as a wood carver?
When I was in college, I started experimenting with sculpting. I tried a whole bunch of different materials. Once I found woodcarving, I fell in love with it — but I was terrible at it because it’s just so hard. I wondered how these carvers do this, and make it look so real, when it’s so hard to cut the wood and to shape it. So, I went to a lot of books, a lot of teachers. I met a wood carver (when Serra’s lamp won third place overall at an art show), and I asked him, “How can I be as good as you are?” He told me, “Quit your job and carve for eight or nine hours a day.” I thought, ‘Well, for one thing, I’m still in school. I’m doing a little side work here or there­.’ But I got the idea. You just have to practice. You have to learn how tools work. So I tried more and more of it. Really, Karges Furniture is where I learned carving. Then I did what the master carver told me at that art show — I was carving eight or nine hours a day.

Is the concept of a polymer resin fixed, or are there different formulas for different assignments?
We have formulas that we have created and perfected through the years, to make the resin look like wood, to make it look like bronze, to make it look like brass, granite, or leather. That’s why we can accommodate all these different customers that find us and say, “Okay, can you do this?” We usually can do just about anything. Our biggest secret is the way we make a wood formula; when I started doing this I worked in wood so much that we have created a formula that really looks like wood. Not only does it look like wood, it feels like wood.

Where are your clients?
I have customers all over the nation. Nowadays, everybody finds you through the Internet. We have a website, and that’s how a lot of these people find us. We have no salespeople out there; we do very little advertising. But usually these people call or send me an email.

Tell us about your current project with the Hadi Shriners.
We started doing this humongous statue for the Shriners — it’s nine-and-a-half feet tall. Being so big, the statue is hollow — the walls are only about a quarter-inch thick — and in order to give it strength, we have to use the fiberglass mesh, and it’s a completely different technique for us. We cast it in two halves and put them together, and it works fine. The original molds were made in 11 pieces; now it’s done in four. The statues will be going to different hospitals and some temples all over the United States. There’s a much smaller version — it’s a similar statue — at the Evansville Hadi Shrine Temple.

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