Soldotna artist creates Alaska wildlife from wood

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

One step into John Nelson's workshop in Soldotna and there is no doubt that a wood carver has been at work.

The sweet smell of fresh-cut lumber tantalizes the senses while the crackling of a wood stove creates a comfortable environment.

This is where Nelson puts his own spin on nature.

Nelson's wood carvings are sold wholesale across Alaska. He specializes in Alaska wildlife, with carvings ranging from polar bears to Canada geese to loons.


Nelson uses a high-powered grinding tool to smooth out the shape of his newest puffin carving.

Photo by Jay Barrett

His creations are done in stages and begin with beetle-kill spruce from area saw mills.

Nelson takes the long sheets of spruce and planes them, making the wood smooth, then glues the pieces together to form thick blocks that will make up the body of the animal.

The blocks are then formed into the bodies and heads of the figures with band saws, power carvers and sanders. Though he uses power tools, he said it does not take away from the work.

"It is still done by hand, it is just adding a little power to the process," he said.

Nelson finishes the carving process by hand carving each object with various sharp finishing knives.

After the wooden objects have taken the form that Nelson desires, he adds the paint that will turn the tanish orbs into bodies and heads of Alaska animals. He said sometimes painting them is harder than making them.


Some of the tools of Nelson's trade.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Nelson said the inspiration for his brush strokes comes from visual memories of the animals and also from books on wildlife.

"I try not to slavishly copy nature," he said. "Art, on something like this, should interpret, not copy."

He stresses to his dealers throughout the state that his carvings are not exactly duplicated.

"That's the charm of it, that they aren't cookie cuttered," he said.

Like many artists, he did not merely stumble upon his profession. As a child, Nelson said he had an artistic streak.

He said he originally began constructing houses and furniture. He decided to try experimenting with wooden carvings and taught himself the craft.


Strong hands are required to hold this puffin body steady as nelson trims off excess wood on the band saw.

Photo by Jay Barrett

In 1980, Nelson started making a living at creating wooden creatures in the Lower 48.

A few years later, when he was in Texas, he taught a wood carving class at a junior college.

Over the course of a year, he said, he creates and sells hundreds, if not thousands, of wildlife figures and has no plans to stop.

Nelson said he would do it "as long as the good Lord lets me."

He has a size and price range for almost any tourist and said he makes small versions of the puffins and ravens for the ease of traveling. However, larger versions also are available.

The prices range from $45 to $225.

Locally, Nelson's wooden figures are featured at the Pratt Museum in Homer, the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and at merchants in Seward. He also has a Web site -- http://www.alaska. net/~neldcoy/ -- to reach those farther than the Kenai Peninsula.

Each of Nelson's figures are signed, dated and carry a "Made in Alaska" logo.

Despite their similarities, no two pieces are the same, Nelson said.

"I try to make every one better than the last. Sometimes I do it, sometimes I don't."

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