Seward carver Sandy Stolle used yellow cedar to make "Arctic Tern," above. The surface is textured with carved facets that catch the lgitha nd shadows. Stolle used techniquest o create texture in her work.
Art patrons use their eyes to appreciate Sandy Stolle's wood relief sculptures and she uses her hands to create the carvings, but it was her nose that helped draw her to working with wood in the first place.
"It is just the aroma, I like the smell of wood," said the Seward carver, who's work is on display at the Gary L. Freeburg Art Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College. "I wouldn't do very good as an ivory carver, I'm afraid. It smells too much like the dentist's office."
Smell aside, the challenges of working with wood captured her interest in the medium more than the drawing and ceramics she's done in the past.
"It's one of the most challenging mediums I've worked with," she said. "It's all properties (like grain and knots) that it brings to the table that you have to work with."
The medium is still alive to an extent, Stolle said, in that the wood can change if exposed to moisture or other conditions -- especially the large pieces she works with. Each plank is different and presents its own challenges and opportunities.
In commissioned pieces Stolle has a design worked out that she tries to carve the wood to fit, but when she's not bound to a prearranged design, she lets the wood play a large role in how it ends up being shaped.
"In my later work I really try to work with the wood itself when I can, rather than coming in with a preconceived design that you apply to the material," she said.
Often Stolle has a general idea in mind when she begins a piece in this more unrestrained manner; some shape or concept that she wants the finished piece to embody. But once she begins, she lets the wood guide her in creating it. If the grain curves a certain way, she goes with it, or if there's a knot in one area, she makes it an integral part of the whole piece.
"You go on intuition a lot and just design," she said. "... You want it to feel right in the end and there's no prescription to get there."
Carving from a preconceived design has its challenges, like making the grain and knots of the wood work with the design, but carving without a set design is a lot harder in some ways, Stolle said.
"If you're carving something and trying to make it realistic you have it preset for you," she said. "Here, you don't."
Much of Stolle's subject matter is from the natural world, representing flora or fauna. She credits the 12 years she and her family -- husband, Jerry, son, Lucas, and daughter, Alder -- lived in Selawik before moving to Seward in 1990 with honing her appreciation for nature.
"Nice Day Foreseen," with mahogany, basswood and rock.
"The natural environment is a big part," she said. "I try to be observant of what is around me."
Several of the pieces in the KPC display show this interest. There's "Tulip," a deep red mahogany wall hanging with undulating, U-shaped carved curves that form the flower. "Arctic Tern" shows an interest in avian life as well as Stolle's knack for working the wood's character into her reliefs. Several knots in the yellow cedar plank become part of the picture, forming a wingtip and head of the bird, the horizon line and parts of the foliage in the foreground.
Life experiences also play into Stolle's work. "Three Maidens," for example, represents her daughter and friends when they were at the age when they began to care about how they dressed and what they looked like. The three-panel mahogany piece isn't a figurative rendering of three young women, instead its curved lines suggest body outlines adorned with jewelry and finery.
At the influence of Oregon carver Roy Setziol, Stolle began using more texture in her work, carving facets into the surface of the wood rather than leaving it flat and smooth. She also creates patterns in the wood by other techniques, like with saw lines or a series of drilled holes.
"That opened a whole new vocabulary of texture," she said. "... You can go for the play (of light) and shadow on the wood for relief work."
Stolle most often lets the wood itself be the star of the show, but she does sometimes include other materials in her work, like mirrors and stone. "Nice Day Foreseen" is a base of mahogany supporting a rock that is crowned with a piece of basswood. Some pieces are functional, like "Solstice Light," a candle pedestal carved from red oak, and a series of mirrors she's done.
"Wood can be really functional that way, and it does make whatever you're doing more valuable," Stolle said, however, that doesn't rule out carving for the sake of decoration, either.
Usually Stolle just coats her pieces with a clear oil finish, but occasionally she colors the wood, like in "!," a large red oak exclamation mark with blue highlights. When she does use color, it generally doesn't hide the wood's grain.
Stolle carved "Anchored" from English walnut.
"Sometimes you get to the end and think, 'Oh that would be real cool with color,'" she said. "But then I think, 'Oh, but I could blow it.'"
Stolle is a full-time artist. Occasionally she teaches Artists in Schools programs and classes at KPC's extension site in Seward. She does Percent for the Art pieces in public buildings -- right now she's working with painter Susan Swidersk to create art for the new Seward Middle School. She also has been picked to design this year's Governor's Award for the Arts.
"It's kind of fun," Stolle said of the project. "It's nice to know that you can help show an appreciation for someone else supporting the arts because we all need each other."
Stolle's wood relief carvings will be on display at KPC until Oct. 15.
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