When storm clouds drape themselves over Grand Mesa and the cold settles into the low-lying areas of Delta County, John Gilbert settles comfortably into the enclosed patio in the rear of his home on Redlands Mesa. With a sharp knife in hand, he transforms a block of wood into an adorable character, glancing up occasionally to watch the deer migrate through his yard.
His wife Alda keeps herself busy with her pottery projects.
These are the retirement years that everyone dreams of — time to pursue your interests, to plan RV trips to visit your kids and grandkids, to watch the birds at the feeder or the wildlife migrating through the piñon-covered hillsides.
Woodcarving is a hobby that Gilbert picked up when he was living in Salt Lake City. Ellis Olson, a well-known woodcarver and one of his first instructors, taught Gilbert how to make "characters," which remain his favorites. John says he likes these whimsical people and animals because "you're the only one that knows what they're supposed to look like."
John picked up his first block of wood in 1989. Although more than 20 years have passed, he still finds inspiration in woodworking magazines and by carving alongside like-minded hobbyists in Montrose and Hotchkiss. The Black Canyon Woodcarvers originally met only in Montrose, but when one of the group's founders passed away, they began rotating meeting places. Every Thursday afternoon four to 14 woodcarvers — depending on the time of year — get together to work on a pattern that somebody's brought in. Sometimes an idea really captures his attention, John says; other times he struggles with a particular pattern. He points to a Santa which he picks up occasionally, then puts back down. "Eventually I'll get him," he says. At an upcoming class, a female member is teaching everyone how to carve roses.
At one point, the group decided to work on western characters. Everyone carved a character using the same scale, with the hope of eventually putting them all together. That hasn't happened, although John did finish the cowboy pictured in the lower left corner. He learned the art of carving cowboys from Cleve Taylor, a traveling instructor from Boise, Idaho.
From Cliff Willey, a woodcarver from Montrose, he learned how to work with bark. Ellis Olson, Cleve Taylor and Cliff Willey are the three people that really made an impact on my woodcarving, John says.
The cottonwood bark in western Colorado is among the best for carving, John says, because as you go further north the bark gets so thick it's difficult to work with. On the other hand, he doesn't like to work with the basswood, or linden, that grows in this area. The basswood found further north has a tighter grain, so it will hold more detail. Aspen has a tight grain, but the thinned acrylic paint tends to bleed, even if the piece has been sealed beforehand.
When you pick up a piece of bark, it "kind of talks to you," John says. Each piece of bark seems designed for a very specific purpose, from a whimsical house to wizards that look ready to disappear quietly back into the depths of the forest.
A carousel containing knives and gougers is close at hand, but a workshop in the garage holds one of John's most essential tools — a band saw. "You can buy what they call 'rough-outs' from many instructors," John said. "They save time, but out in the country like we're living in, you just cut them out yourself with the band saw."
He starts by sketching the pattern on a block of wood, then saws off hunks of wood to roughly shape the design "so you don't have so much wood to remove when you start carving."
"There's not a woodcarver I know of who won't share every bit of information he has like that — none," John says.
It's the sharing of pattern and techniques that makes group carving so enjoyable, he adds. In addition to the weekly meetings of the Black Canyon Woodcarvers, he also carves with a group at the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss on the second Saturday of the month, from 1 to 3 p.m. He invites anyone who's interested to give him a call at 872-5958.
John and his wife took part in a few craft shows after they moved to western Colorado in 2000, but today most of their handiwork goes to their kids in Ohio, Iowa and Utah, or is purchased by friends and neighbors. An assortment of his carvings can also be viewed at the Creamery.
"The ideas keep coming," he says, as he thumbs through photographs of spoons, toothpick holders, Christmas ornaments, cane heads and other items he's carved over the years. He's also done a bit of wood turning, and enjoys photography, but it's woodcarving that's captured his interest and helped him pleasantly while away many winter days. blog comments powered by Disqus