Going With The Grain

As one of the most ancient of art forms, woodcarving sculpture is and has been practiced by nearly every civilization in the world.

From the Native Americans and their many different tribal expressions to the pioneers who rolled across prairies with their pocketknives, whittling away to pass the time, the art of woodcarving runs deep in American heritage and tradition.

But the act of giving a piece of wood a new life as an art sculpture goes beyond simple pocket knife whittling– it requires training, skill and a deep intuition for working with the grains of the wood in hand.

Take Tulsa woodcarver Rusty Johnson and his walnut piece, Mama’s Gone Fishin’, which won the Chairman’s Choice at the 2010 Oklahoma City Woodcarvers annual show, received awards at the 2010 International Woodcarvers Congress and won Woodcarving Illustrated magazine’s Best of Show in their Woodcarving Design Contest in 2011.

“There is just something so nice about the feel of a finished piece of wood. On (Mama’s Gone Fishin’), the walnut itself influenced how it was carved – so the bear echoed the curve of the grain, which really makes that piece much nicer than if I would have ignored the grain,” Johnson explains.

“Sometimes the wood grain dictates what you do, and then it becomes a very organic part of the piece.”

A self-proclaimed “bashful guy” and introvert, Johnson has taken his longtime love of the arts beyond his 35-year career as a graphic designer and cartoonist, receiving recognition for his wood carving work on local, regional and national levels.

When he retired in 2009, Johnson attended the Geisler-Moroder Woodcarving School in Elbigenalp, Austria, and it was there that Johnson was trained in the distinct style of Tyrolean woodcarving, which dates back to the early 1500s.

“I had mentioned to my wife that there was a woodcarving school in Austria, and she said, ‘What, you have to go to all the way to Austria to learn woodcarving?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. I think I do!’

“It was great working with master carvers,” Johnson continues. “In Austria, to be a carver, you have to carry a card and be qualified to be a master, so learning the craft from people who are truly artists with such rich histories and backgrounds in the art form was quite a learning experience.”

Unlike many wood carvers, Johnson never uses other people’s patterns, always executing his own patterns and ideas.

His work reflects a unique style he has created by fusing his background in design and cartooning with an eclectic mix of different techniques from various media, blending influences from the likes of woodcarver Willard Stone, caricature artist Gerry Gersten, illustrator Howard Pyle and sculptor Michelangelo.

“I was always drawing stuff and loved working with my hands since I was a kid, but I’ve always particularly liked three dimensional art. I started woodcarving as a Boy Scout making neckerchief slides and selling them to kids at camp. It’s been a long, evolutionary process.”