Portfolio | Masters of Wood

Bob Boomer, Water Girl, manzanita, h20. sculpture, southwest art.
Bob Boomer, Water Girl, manzanita, h20.

By Myrna Zanetell

They all work in the same medium, but their sculptures are as different as the men who create them. Bob Boomer, J. Chester Armstrong, Greg Woodard, and Leo E. Osborne each begin the creative process with a chain saw, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Boomer’s figurative sculptures have a delicate, ethereal quality that he achieves by working with the inherent nature of the wood. Twists, knots, cracks, and other irregularities dictate the final form of his images. “My goal is to incorporate the wood’s flaws into the overall design of the piece,” Boomer says. “The spontaneous way in which I work is dictated by the wood’s natural elements.”

Rough areas of bark may become hair, a robe, or even a necklace, while cracks may be worked into the hem of a skirt or a face. “When I sculpt a female image from a log that has a branch, I don’t remove it—I transform the stub into a bowl or water jug,” says Boomer [b1944]. “And because the natural twist of a piece of wood often lends itself to the look of a skirt or shawl blowing in the wind, most of my standing figures become women. When I sculpt a male figure, he is usually robed

J. Chester Armstrong, The Prize, black walnut, 36 x 52 x 30. sculpture, southwest art.
J. Chester Armstrong, The Prize, black walnut, 36 x 52 x 30.

because legs detract from the clean, flowing line I want to achieve. As I am working, I draw the image out, removing just enough wood to suggest the figure. The final result is a blend of nature and design that enhances both.”

Boomer likes the intimacy that comes from harvesting his own wood, primarily manzanita and cedar that he finds in the California Sierras near his home. He keeps the form of his sculptures as close to the original shape of the wood as possible. Even the gold, red, and maroon bands that he often incorporates into his figures are the actual colors of the wood.

Boomer’s sculptures have a tranquillity and spirituality that  results partly from

Bob Boomer, Haunt of the Spirits, cedar, 33 x 25 x 18.sculpture, southwest art.
Bob Boomer, Haunt of the Spirits, cedar, 33 x 25 x 18

intricate images in wood, but because I am absolutely in love with line, the chain saw is the perfect tool for me—the constant, steady movement as it cuts creates flowing lines, unlike chisels, which make chips and chunks.”

Armstrong frequently sculpts multiple images into his huge pieces. “Since wood is organic, things change as I am working,” he says. “Nothing is locked in—I ad-lib as I cut, making decisions as I go. If I come to a branch, it may become a rearing horse instead of one that’s running with the herd. The wood has a spirit of its own, and its creative life force flows into me as I work. I, in turn, put that energy back into my sculpture.”

Using tupelo gum, Greg Woodard [b1958] fashions birds so real they seem poised to take flight. Such realism is a result of familiarity, for Woodard is a falconer who knows his birds well. “Falconry is pretty much a life-style,” says the Utah artist. “You have to apprentice for two years before taking a

Leo E. Osborne, Ancient Mariner, maple burl with dye, 26 x 26 x 26.sculpture, southwest art.
Leo E. Osborne, Ancient Mariner, maple burl with dye, 26 x 26 x 26.

test to become certified. From that moment on, you eat, sleep, and breathe birds. When I’m training a new raptor, I have to take it flying daily for at least six months. Like wild birds of prey who stay in shape by hunting, domestic birds also need regular exercise. They live in a competitive world and can be killed by other predators if they’re not in peak condition.”

This dedication has made Woodard one of the world’s best-known sculptors of birds of prey. “Many carvers rely only on actual bird skins from museum collections for details. While I use skins and photographs to get the colors and placement of the feathers right, there’s

Greg Woodard, Cactus Flower, tupelo with oil paint, 34 x 14 x 12. sculpture, southwest art.
Greg Woodard, Cactus Flower, tupelo with oil paint, 34 x 14 x 12.

no substitute for being around these amazing creatures every day. There’s a level of emotion and expression that you miss if you’re not intimate with the live bird. Their eyes reveal whether they’re happy, angry, or even sick. When I successfully convey a bird’s emotions in a work of art, the piece comes alive.”

Woodard is especially fond of wood from the tupelo tree, which flourishes along the bayous in the South. “I use the part of the tree that grows right at the water line,” he says. “It’s called the ‘bell’ and it’s a big, strong piece of dense lumber ideal for carving details like claws and toenails.”

Unlike many other sculptors, Woodard begins by carving the base and then designs the bird to fit it, thus recreating a small part of the bird’s natural habitat. A red-tailed hawk or a kestrel may be nestled within the curve of a gnarled tree trunk, while a peregrine falcon may be perched on a rock, ready to fly. Such unique treatment can be seen in Cactus Flower, a carving of a female American kestrel atop a prickly pear that won Woodard the

Leo E. Osborne, Toucan Sunrise, maple burl with dye, h38.sculpture, southwest art.
Leo E. Osborne, Toucan Sunrise, maple burl with dye, h38.

$20,000 Ward World Champion-ship in 1992.

“Some people think of woodcarving as craft, but I consider it fine art,” Woodard says. “I carve my birds from a single piece of wood and then paint them with oil. At world-championship carving shows in the past, I noticed that most of the other birds were rendered as precisely as possible, using a technique closer to taxidermy than sculpture. As a result, the birds didn’t look real. Then, in the 1990s, collectors started appreciating a more impressionistic approach. My birds are still anatomically correct, but I bring them alive with color and light.” Woodard, who works primarily on commission, takes at least three months to complete one of his sculptures.

Birds are also one of Washington artist Leo E. Osborne’s favorite subjects. He usually fashions his sculptures from the burl found on maple trees. “Burl is a growth on a tree much like a wart on the skin,” he explains. “It’s not caused by a wound but rather by a virus that attacks the tree and changes the cellular structure of the wood. Consequently, burl has 10 times the density of regular wood and no grain. I especially like ‘bird’s-eye’ burl, which occurs frequently in maple. Bird’s eye comes from nodules in the burl that form growth rings that increase every year.”

To attain the distinctive colors in his carvings, Osborne  [b1947] uses aniline dye—a water-soluble dry pigment similar to shoe polish—to bring out the features. “I saturate the sculpture with water and then brush on the diluted dye using a technique similar to watercolor. By painting on the wet wood, I’m able to get the soft edges I like. Burl absorbs various colors differently, depending on its hardness, so the dye actually accents its ‘burl-ness.’ After numerous washes of color, I finish the piece with a coat of wax.”

Osborne is such a perfectionist that he can produce only three or four major sculptures each year. His labor has paid off, though, as he is the only sculptor to have received six awards of

Leo E. Osborne, Brothers of the Wood, maple burl with dye, 36 x 36 x 36.sculpture, southwest art.
Leo E. Osborne, Brothers of the Wood, maple burl with dye, 36 x 36 x 36.

excellence and three awards for interpretive sculpture from the Society of Animal Artists.

What makes an artist choose to work in wood as opposed to bronze? For Boomer, the smell and feel of wood are part of his earliest memories. He recalls spending hours with his father in his gunsmith shop and with his grandfather building furniture and cabinets. “The love they had for their work was contagious,” Boomer says. “I always felt comfortable

J. Chester Armstrong, Brothers of the Deer, English walnut, 48 x 96 x 30.sculpture, southwest art.
J. Chester Armstrong, Brothers of the Deer, English walnut, 48 x 96 x 30.

with them. I get the same feeling when working with wood.”

After earning a degree in industrial arts with an emphasis on wood technology and metals from California State University, Fresno, Boomer took a teaching job in Hawaii. It was there that he first began working with native woods, thus rekindling a love of carving that would eventually lead to a career as a full-time wood sculptor.

Armstrong came to his profession by a more circuitous route. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in philosophy, Armstrong traveled to Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, where Mayan ruins

Bob Boomer, Coral Odyssey, cedar, 12 x 24 x 18.sculpture, southwest art.
Bob Boomer, Coral Odyssey, cedar, 12 x 24 x 18.

awakened his artistic side. “They spoke to me and instilled in me the belief that artists hold the key to the past, present, and future,” he says. “I decided right then that I wanted to be part of that world.”

After returning to the United States, Armstrong settled in rural Vermont, where he became fascinated with older buildings that had been built by hand. While restoring these old homes and barns, he acquired his first chain saw. “It was an old hand-me-down with no instructions, so I taught myself how to use it,” Armstrong says. “I learned to do things with a chain saw that aren’t usually done, but there was nobody around to tell me not to do them.”

Greg Woodard, Bat Falcon and Barn Swallow, tupelo with oil paint, 32 x 18 x 12.sculpture, southwest art.
Greg Woodard, Bat Falcon and Barn Swallow, tupelo with oil paint, 32 x 18 x 12.

Woodard, son of a cabinetmaker, also grew up around wood. After high school, he worked as a switchman for the Santa Fe Railroad while carving birds in his spare time. After 10 years with the railroad he was laid off, which forced him to make a decision about his future. “I had always wanted to be a bird carver, but I was saving that dream for the future,” he says. “Suddenly, the future was here.”

It took two years of intense work, but Woodard’s dedication paid off when he began winning awards at carving competitions. Soon collectors started purchasing his work. “I finally realized that I could actually make a living doing what I loved,” he says.

Osborne also loved animals as a child, but it wasn’t until he won a scholarship from the Art Instruction School of Minneapolis, MN, that he began combining his interest in wildlife with his artistic abilities. He first exhibited his paintings on Cape Cod, but it took a move to Maine, where he made a living making wooden signs, to discover his interest in carving birds. A final move to the San Juan Islands in Washington has him living squarely in the middle of a bird-lover’s paradise. “This area is very rural, so I find my subject matter at every turn,” Osborne says.

What makes the work of these sculptors memorable, and how do they see their work evolving in the future? Flowing lines and delicate details have become Boomer’s trademark, and his collectors frequently comment on the serenity and spirituality that emanates from his pieces. He’s been carving small “spirit faces” into his sculptures, tucking them into places where you might not expect to see them. “I think they add another dimension to my work,” Boomer says. “As for how I would like to expand my artwork, we recently finished building a cabin high in the mountains, and I sit on the porch watching the animals go about their daily lives. Although I still love my figures, I’ve begun sculpting some wildlife subjects, especially endangered species. And I would like to create some life-size or even monumental pieces soon.”

Woodard thinks that carving his birds from a single piece of wood is what makes his work distinctive. “Many bird carvers fashion individual wings and bodies and then glue them together for the final product,” he says. “I start with a large mass and reduce it to a single image. I think the composition is stronger when it comes from just one piece of wood. It’s more challenging, but the results are worth it.” As far as his goals, Woodard looks forward to the day when bird carving is considered as important as painting and other types of sculpture.

Osborne attributes his artistic evolution partly to his discovery of burl. Although his early birds were quite realistic, his work became more stylized once he began carving burl. He is interested in creating more figurative work in the future and is currently working on a female figure. “The female form is smooth and graceful, with an elegance that lends itself to interpretation in wood,” Osborne says.

Armstrong also has numerous ideas for future sculptures. “Art is a long-time proposition, and I haven’t played out all the possibilities of multiple imagery long-necked giraffes would be a wonderful challenge as would many other African animals,” Armstrong says. “Mythology also intrigues me. Human figures are frequently connected to the animal world, especially in the Native American culture. I’d like to do a shaman with a pack of wolves or an image of a deer dancer. In my creations, wood is Mother Earth, and deer and man are in the pro-cess of metamorphosing. I think I’m inspired by spiritual themes because, for me, wood carving is a religion.”

Photos courtesy the artists and the following galleries:

Boomer:  May Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; Wind River Gallery, Aspen, CO; Lee Youngman Galleries, Calistoga, CA; Michael Atkinson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Spirits in the Wind Gallery, Golden, CO. Armstrong: Aspen Mountain Gallery, Aspen, CO; Michael Atkinson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; J. Chester Armstrong Gallery, Telluride, CO; Michelangelo Gallery, Las Vegas, NM; Quast Galleries, Taos, NM. Woodard: William Duncan Gal-lery, Park City, UT; Greg Woodard Studios, Brigham City, UT. Leo E. Osborne: Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland and Edmonds, WA; Amby/Edinger Gallery, Ellensburg, WA; Scott/Milo Gallery, Anacortes, WA; Bronze Coast Gallery, Joseph, OR; Breckenridge Galleries, Breckenridge, CO.

Featured in “Portfolio” July 1998