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Wood carver transforms stump into anniversary gift

| Sunday, June 8, 2003

Sassy, the great horned owl, appeared this past week when wood carver Joe King applied his skill with a chain saw to a sassafras stump in a Monessen back yard.

The sassafras tree was a favorite of owners, John and Dorothy Novakovich. About 35 years ago, John Novakovich and a neighbor went to the woods and dug a small sassafras tree. Then Novakovich planted the sapling in his back yard.

"There's a sentimental attachment to that tree," he said. When the greater part of the tree began dying, the couple decided for safety's sake, to remove the tree, but leave the stump in anticipation of turning it into a sculpture.

An Internet search brought up the name of Joe King, who resides in North Huntingdon but maintains a wood carving business at his Pine Hollow Studio in Ardara, Westmoreland County, not far from Monroeville, Allegheny County. "We're close to the border," her offered.

When King arrived at the Novakovich yard, he found a tall stump jutting from the grassy earth, with a fish pond, evergreen trees and floral plantings nearby. King studied the stump, noting the way the branches had grown. Donning a helmet and gloves, the carver was ready to work, knowing where to start.

"I start with a profile," King said. "Like those plywood cutouts you see of a man standing in silhouette." He demonstrated by striking an animated, then motionless pose. "I profile from the side, turn 90 degrees, and profile from the front. It's called the blocking out stage."

In all, three chain saws were used, big, medium and small saws to produce a finished product. This great horned owl stands about 4 feet tall from horn to tail, King said. Talons, beard, wings, breast, beak, along with the horns and tail, are cut in with exacting detail. And since the tree was sassafras, "It smells beautifully all day long," said King.

Both the owners and the carver agreed that Sassy was an appropriate name for the sculpture. To preserve the artwork, King advised that Sassy be given several coats of Marine varnish.

The sculpture was completed in about 4 1/2 hours, King said. But that was just the actual cutting time. Other work was involved. Equipment was assembled and saws were sharpened, then loaded into a vehicle. Before that, King had already prepared by studying photographs and taxidermy. By the time he gets to a work site, "It all comes together. I do my homework, study the figures and then pull it out of my head."

King has carved more than 200 different characters including animals, birds, human figures, aquatic life, flowers, abstracts, and whimsical figures. He has even carved a wooden chain. "But wildlife is still my favorite," he emphasized.

Of his people carvings, Arnie Palmer is most famous. Palmer's golf swing is well-known around the world and by King, since he has carved Palmer with club in hand. He has a letter signed by Palmer thanking him for the sculpture.

About six years ago, King also carved a life-size statue from a tree at the Latrobe Country Club. It was a sculpture of Palmer's dad "Deke, that 's short for Deacon." Palmer told King, "Pap and I planted that tree together."

This year, King carved a scale model of a heart valve used by Dr. George MaGovern, associated with Allegheny General Hospital. It was in conjunction with activities for the Heart Foundation.

King admits his wood carving takes "a lot of practice." There is a physical as well as a creative side to the work. "I exercise every morning and stay fit." He noted that those who play sports, warm up first. It is also imperative for his craft.

As well as an excellent physical condition, King said he has a three-dimensional eye. "I see proportions real well but I can't draw a picture to save my life." The wood carver has also tried ice carving but he did not like it. King loves to work with any kind of wood. "Black walnut is pretty."

"I have an affinity for nature," he said. An outdoor person, King likes to hike and explore. A master carpenter by trade, the 47-year-old has also worked in a furniture and cabinet shop.

About one-third of his business is commission work. "People have a favorite tree or something sentimental they want for their home." His Web site (www.treecarver.com) shows examples of his carving expertise and the extent of the sculptures he creates.

His work is priced by project, based somewhat on the time involved. "On my first cut here, I hit two nails and ruined the saw blade," King said. Nails are a constant challenge to any wood carver.

How nails got into the tree is a mystery to the Novakovich pair. The tree sculpture is a gift from their three children to commemorate the couple's 50th anniversary June 15.

King understands the "sentimental value" his work, and that of other wood carvers, provides.

According to King, "In the U.S., there are between 300 to 500 people who carve at the level I do. And between 3,000 to 5,000 people are part-time wood carvers. There are now chain saw carvers in 12 countries."

A member of the Craftsmen Guild of Pittsburgh, King has been seen on television, at art and craft festivals and contributes articles to a wood carver magazine. He does school presentations, often sponsored by the PTA, "to get kids excited about artwork and sculpture, whether conventional or this method." He explained, "Wood carving, in general, is a lost art. Most carvers are people of retirement age." When he goes to a school, "I usually carve bear cubs. Then there is a question and answer period. Kids are just bursting with questions."

King, a single parent, has raised two sons, ages 20 and 26, and is grandfather to a 4-year-old boy. Though his sons showed no interest in carving, the grandson loves to be in the shop, meandering around all the sculptures. "He will be the carver," said King, with a grandfather glow in his voice. "I have great hope for the future. Things swing both ways. My hope is that we become a more meaningful society."

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