Over one year ago, on June 29, 2012, a powerful storm littered city streets with huge branches and fully mature trees as it blasted its way across Fort Wayne. Many who remember the storm have stories to tell about where they were and what they saw as the 91-mph straight-line winds swept through our neighborhoods. Phillip Stewart was out of town when the storm hit, but his life will be forever connected to the event.
Unaware of the storm, Stewart and his family dismantled their campsite in northern Michigan, loaded the truck and headed home. Memories of a fabulous vacation lingered in their minds – camping, fishing, swimming and a visit to a surprisingly impressive art show where Stewart met some men who carved wooden decoy ducks. He was instantly drawn to their work and felt the call of inspiration.
Back home in Indiana, Stewart found his neighborhood littered with branches and trees. With memories of decoy ducks still fresh in his mind, his wheels started turning. Stewart harvested a log from a pine tree that had fallen at the end of his cul-de-sac. He cut off a section about three feet tall, rolled it down the street and parked it in his driveway.
“That’s when all the craziness started,” said Stewart.
That craziness includes an impressive collection of sculptures, which sprout up from Stewart’s yard. That first harvested log is now a bear, a vision clearly imagined by Stewart and carefully carved with his chainsaw. Another log was transformed into a wise, bearded man named Phil Robertson who welcomes guests at the front door with textural detail that commands not just a second look but a respectful investigation with an open palm.
With the pass of a hand, one can quickly understand why Stewart is attracted to the medium. Wood is a material that can be brutally rugged (enough to leave you with a nasty gash) yet worked to a curvaceous, smooth shine. Wood is inviting but at the same time unforgiving. Mistakes can’t be corrected easily, and once a carver decides to head in one direction, there is no turning back.
Many will agree that there is a spirit held within a piece of wood. The life of the tree lingers within the layers that grew slowly over time. When an artist can harmonize with the grain, the patterns of light and dark, the swooping and curing lines seem to unfold magically, adding a rich layer of beauty to the finished piece.
Stewart is keenly connected to his medium. He studies each piece of wood carefully before picking up his power tools.
“I used to look at trees and just see a tree,” explained Stewart. Now he visualizes images in the organic shapes of trees. He looks for interesting features such as burls or branch formations that he can incorporate into his designs. When referring to his first bear sculpture, Stewart said, “I immediately saw what I wanted to carve based on the shape and size.” Thirty hours of labor later and the bear carving was finished.
When Stewart first took a chainsaw to a chunk of wood, he unleashed a hidden talent. It is incredibly hard to comprehend the level of quality he has been able to achieve in just one year. When asked about his training, Stewart replied simply, “I took art all through elementary and high school. I like to draw and I play around with watercolor.”
His casual response leaves one wondering, what else is this guy capable of? With no formal training, his research done online, Stewart has been able to establish himself as a skilled craftsman, one who has already stacked up a line of requests for commissions. “I’ve had people straight up call me a liar,” said Stewart as he recalls conversations with curious observers of his work. “They act like they are joking, but I think they really have doubts.”
The truth is, Stewart hasn’t had time to investigate his passion and talent until now. He is a father, husband and full-time firefighter for the city of Fort Wayne. Prior to that he served in the military, which instilled a craving for excitement. The fire service offers Stewart the rush of adrenaline that he needs, but he also enjoys helping people. He is proud to serve as a firefighter and goes to work excited to give his best effort.
“Someone is depending on you to be your best on the worst day of their life,” said Stewart as he explained what has motivated him for the past 11 years.
High standards and commitment to quality are traits that have undoubtedly helped lift his carving skills to a high level in a remarkably short period of time, and Stewart is pushing himself to a new level with his current project. A cigar store Indian stands proudly in Stewart’s front yard. It is an enormous work, over six feet tall, carved from a beautiful piece of locus harvested from a tree that a neighbor recently cut down.
“Someone came over and told me about it,” said Stewart. “Luckily the guy who commissioned the piece happened to have equipment large enough to move the trunk into my yard. It’s a beautiful piece of wood.”
The wood’s grain complements the form that is taking shape. Small lines encircle the cheekbones while larger grain patterns highlight the muscle tone in the figure’s abdomen. By contrast, the back of the figure is consistent in color, allowing the bone structure to flow smoothly.
As Stewart works, neighbors and friends keep close tabs on his progress. The carving is taking shape out in his studio which is on the lawn outside of his front door. As the Indian takes on more detail and definition, Stewart has noticed an increase in foot traffic. People from other neighborhoods are walking past to watch him work. They often stop to ask questions or comment on the transformation of the giant log. As details such as braids, a feather and a pipe emerge, observers seem more fascinated by his work. While he enjoys visits, Stewart knows he must stay focused while he works.
“There are many angles, and they all have to be in alignment and anatomically correct.” He is constantly problem solving and thinking ahead of the wood. “I battle with a sense of hesitation and fear. I have a lot of time invested in this piece. One mistake and the whole thing is ruined, but you have to be willing to go for it. You have to be willing to try.”
Because he works outdoors, Stewart must also battle the weather. He can only carve on dry days, and even then he constantly applies varnishes and urethanes to the wood to protect it from drying and cracking. As the summer season winds down, carving season ticks away. A sense of urgency pushes Stewart forward as he knows he must finish the largest piece of his short career as soon as possible.
Stewart has dreams of buying a place in the country where he can set up a shop to allow him to continue working all year long. His mind is a whirlwind of ideas for making furniture, birdbaths and abstract pieces.
“My brain is crammed full like a closet full of junk,” says Stewart who plans to continue developing his skills and possibly turn his hobby in to a second career. His passion for creating is strong, and if he can keep up this pace he will no doubt find success.
“I sometimes look at other people’s art and it blows my mind,” says Stewart. “That’s what I want other people to get out of the work that I do.”
After making the visit to witness his work, one can safely say, mission accomplished.
Click on the headings below for full calendars
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102