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.