September 28, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Brett LeVan
About an hour and a half south of Colorado Springs, my family has 20 acers of property which my Mimi and Papa have owned since the mid-1970s. On our property is a garage, well shed, tractor shed, and two modest off-grid cabins – one cabin for my Mimi and Papa and one cabin for my parents.
With the luxury of my parents’ jobs, my family escapes the Kansas heat, along with my Mimi and Papa, each summer by coming to our cabins for two or so months at a time – sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
Much of my family’s property is partially tree-covered with groves of aspen and many pine trees. The two cabins share a well for water, solar for power (unless we need to do laundry, and then we have to run a generator), and wood fire stoves for heat. While Papa has cut an impressive pile of firewood from dead trees around the property, he’s gotten creative with a few of the stumps. Wood which would normally go to the firewood pile has instead become canvases for my papa and his wood carvings.
During my family’s quarantine here in 2020, my mom encouraged Papa to carve a hawk out of a dead pinion pine. The pinion pine stump came up a few feet and sent out many branches. Papa used these branches to make the wings, tail, and head of the bird. After Papa was finished, my mom named it Hank the Harrier Hawk. Our cabins are a mile up a long windy mountain road, and lovely enough, Hank is carved into a tree along that mile road, greeting guests before they arrive at our cabins. This was Papa’s first carving, but it certainly wouldn’t be his last.
My brother and I no longer spend our summers here, a result of growing up. Yet, while I was away in Europe this summer, I received updates via text from my mom on projects my dad and Papa were completing, as well as bear sightings and Papa’s new tree carvings.
I asked my papa about the process and while he was reluctant to let me write about his carvings in wake of having “no art training,” his artistry is evident and an exciting way of showing a second life for many trees I’ve grown up around.
This summer, my papa added three new tree carvings around the property. The first of the summer being a howling coyote, on a “stump of about four feet high,” Papa said. “The tree was only nine inches in diameter,” so it had to be a tall, skinny coyote.
My mom has often been the one to name the tree carvings, so she named the coyote Bella – Bella meaning beautiful in Latin. With many of the tree carvings, Papa wasn’t sure where to start. The dead stumps are canvases, but they are in the end just stumps. But with the “coyote, I started pretty high on the head, [and] had a pretty tall coyote,” Papa says. “The tree was hollow just at the bottom where the chest was which affected the shape of the sculpture.” Yet, the hollowed chest adds to the realistic nature of the howling coyote.
A little while later in the summer, my Papa carved a little bear in an even smaller stump – the nature of the stump and how small it was made this carving particularly challenging. “I couldn’t put arms stretched out…I had to carve it with arms against the body,” Papa said.
My Mimi added, “It was hard…and you thought about cutting it down many times.” Papa chuckled before adding, “I managed to get a bear out of it, although I’m not particularly proud of the bear.” The bear is so sweet, and with the help of our neighbor down the road, the bear was named “Skinny Winnie” because it looks like a thin Winnie the Pooh.
While my mom and dad returned to work in Kansas, Mimi and Papa have stayed in Colorado at the cabins. As this past block continued, Papa kept carving. The newest addition being a small beautifully colored spiral.
“Up by our tractor shed, we had a tree that had broken the top out of it years ago and had been inhabited by birds every year, usually flickers had their nests in it,” Papa said. “Three different holes with three different nests remained.” The trunk that remained was about seven feet tall, by the time Papa started carving, it was completely hollow. The tree was complexly grey and the grain on it was in a kind of spiral.
Mimi suggested for Papa to carve a spiral in the wood following the grain. Working with the color of the grain was Papa’s favorite part of this carving. He said that there was an “amazing amount of color left in the wood,” especially in a stump that had been dead for many years. “In the inside wood…the fun was just discovering the color in that piece.” Papa discovered the character in the wood with his abstract spiral. “I just followed the grain in cutting the spiral,” and it transformed into a remarkably beautiful shape. The light shines through it differently throughout the day making its shape dynamic.
With all these carvings Papa said, “I enjoyed the experience of seeing what would emerge from these experiences.” Papa began each carving with a chain saw and them followed with a rasp-like tool resembling a cheese grater to chisel and shape the wood as he desired. “I didn’t have any wood carving tools; it was really just whatever tools I had on hand,” Papa confessed.
While these new carvings are welcoming reminders of second chances for many of these trees, the carvings weren’t Papa’s first dead tree carvings. About 20 years ago, Papa had a group of cedars in the back yard of my mom’s childhood home in Kansas. One of the cedars died, and Papa said, “On a lark, I tried to see if I could carve a dog with my chain saw, so I carved that. It was nothing great, but it looked like a dog sitting on its haunches looking up.”
That stump is still sitting there 20 years later, “with the tail rotting off,” Papa added.
Papa covered each carving with spar varnish which will weather and prevent the pieces from decaying or rotting – keeping the carvings for years and years to come.
These carvings were “done to have something unique on our property,” Papa said. He was quick to remind me that they weren’t done for exhibition or for artistic display but simply for fun. Each carving an exhibition of a retired man’s artwork and a second life for many trees.