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Carving out a niche in the art world

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | April 15, 2010 9:00 PM

HOPE - The wolf head mounted on a pedestal in James Davis' office is surrounded by ribbons and lit by sun that slants through a large window. Davis, a physicist by education and a retired city worker by occupation, carved the wolf bust from a block of basswood that earned a blue ribbon and a larger, gaudier ribbon for being the best in its division at a recent juried art show in the Tri-Cities.

HOPE - The wolf head mounted on a pedestal in James Davis' office is surrounded by ribbons and lit by sun that slants through a large window.

Davis, a physicist by education and a retired city worker by occupation, carved the wolf bust from a block of basswood that earned a blue ribbon and a larger, gaudier ribbon for being the best in its division at a recent juried art show in the Tri-Cities.

The accolades surprised Davis, in part because the carved rendition was the first that he entered in a regional art show since he felt the urge to grab a carving tool a few years ago.

He was not partial to tools of any sort before then. As a former communications technician, a fluency in hand tools was not part of his job description.

"I had never touched a tool," Davis said. "As a kid in high school, I was always doing science and avoided wood shop."

Wood and wildlife, though, held an interest since his early days growing up on a Nebraska farm. He earned a degree in physics from Cal Poly in the 1960s and took a job as a dispatcher for San Luis Obispo County working later as a bomb tech and a deputy sheriff before transferring to a computer job.

When he retired to property he and his wife, Elaine, owned overlooking the Clark Fork delta and Lake Pend Oreille, he put his passion to work carving wildlife without considering that his creations might one day win kudos from the art community.

Davis' office is a small space of tongue-and-groove pine neatly filled with power tools the names of which he ticks off easily and with a certain reverence.

"That's a Proxon Arbortech ... an Espert 500 ... an angle grinder with sanding discs on it," he said. "That power pen is just a modified dentist drill that turns at 425,000 rpm."

They are the tools of his new trade, all neatly in their place in an office of wood walls and a view of the lake, mountains and peninsulas.

From his window he has watched elk, deer and wild cats.

"I've seen every animal out here that I'm working on," he said. "We watched a cougar right below us two years ago."

The animals he watches become figures on his sketch pad and bookmarks on his personal computer. He researches their anatomy, marks muscles and bones that he transfers to blocks of wood. Some of them become busts, while others become bass relief scenes on plaques complete with the vegetation of their natural environs.

He is taking a sculpting course to further his technique, he said, because once a mistake is made in a piece of wood, it cannot be undone and the foul piece is relegated to the firebox.

"You can't go back," he said. "There's some pretty good kindling that's gone through the fireplace."

Until he won his first ribbons this year, he regularly gave his creations away. He made a decision a while back to begin displaying his work at local galleries if he won a juried show.

After carefully crafting the pieces he entered at the Tri-Cities event he thought his confidence might suffer, at least temporarily, if the pieces were not at least given a nod.

"I was hoping for an honorable mention," he said.

He sent Elaine to check on the results of the judging.

When she came out, she looked pleased.

"She was grinning from ear to ear," he said, "and I started feeling a little bit better."

The ribbons were the kudos he did not expect, but was pleased to have received.

"I was surprised," Davis said. "You always want to think that your work is good and that people will appreciate it, but you never know."

Davis wears a flannel shirt with a grizzly bear motif. His handlebar mustache droops to his chin. If his life once revolved around computers, data sheets, and commutes back and forth through traffic, he now epitomizes a man who is at home in his quiet, new-found environment, with wildlife churning around in his head.

"Wildlife to me is where my mind seems to be all the time," he said. "I don't see myself getting tired of doing this."

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