Northwoods carver finds inner beauty in blocks of wood
The big maple in front of the Rhinelander District Library may be dying, but for Cheryl Campbell it’s an inspiration. “I can see things in wood,” she said. “I think that’s the carver in me.”
And quite a carver she is. Cheryl started chainsaw carving in 2003, after watching a demonstration of the art form in Eagle River at a craft show. She was so smitten with the process, she decided to take a class that was given by professional chainsaw carver Brian Johnson from Hayward. “To tell the truth I was afraid of chainsaws and in a way I still am,” she said with a chuckle. “But there’s a lot I like about this form of art. I like that it’s physical and in a way dangerous. I like that I can work with trees. And I like the creativity of it. You always have to think ahead.”
Carving figures from giant logs was the furthest form of art Cheryl intended pursuing when she was growing up in Kearney, Nebraska, however, all six Campbell children were artistically inclined. “A couple of my brothers are writers and I have a sister who is a very talented painter,” she said. “I was really a good portrait artist though. I wanted to do something better than my brothers so that’s what I concentrated on.”
After high school, Cheryl took off to college in Lincoln Nebraska, and graduated with a science degree. “I have always loved science,” she said. “I’ve managed to work in a laboratory from the time I was a teenager.” She eventually got a masters degree in plant pathology and studied dry bean pathogen’s in Nebraska for four years. Then she decided a change was in order and got a job in the state of Washington studying wheat diseases. “That was quite an adventure for me,” she said with a chuckle. “I just wanted to change diseases.”
For eight years she worked in the fields of Washington and then got another itch for a change. In 1993, she turned down four jobs in different parts of the United States to come to Rhinelander and work at the Frito-Lay farms in this area, concentrating on potatoes. “I’ve always loved to live in small towns and Rhinelander was just what I was looking for,” she said.
Cheryl also loves to fish, and it was on an angling outing that she snagged her husband, Tom Wiensch, who is an assistant district attorney for Oneida County. He was in the middle of a stream, fly fishing when she caught his eye. “I knew right there I was going to marry him,” she said. Sure enough, only a year passed before the two tied the knot.
Life settled into a comfortable routine for the couple until last year when Cheryl decided to retire from her job at Frito-Lay in February. While she was working, she had little time to devote to her chainsaw craft, although her home is dotted with exquisite examples of her talent like owls sitting on logs, otters frolicking over a stump, bears holding bowls and ravens peering out wisely into the world.
Her creatures are mesmerizing, each one with its own personality. Cheryl has studied animal anatomy carefully and her carvings are proportioned with finesse and an innate skill. She also carves many types of wood including black cherry (her favorite), black walnut, pine and oak. She gets her material from loggers in the area. “The only logs I won’t touch are trees that come out of front lawns,” she said. “They tend to have nails and other objects in them.”
It was an email from Rhinelander District Library Director Ed Hughes that made Cheryl think outside the box as far as her carving is concerned. Ed asked if she would be interested in putting together a presentation for the library board to showcase her talent. One of the maples in front of the building was dying and the board decided to have it carved into an art piece.
“You know we have the Hodag near the front door of the library and it attracts a lot of people,” said Ed. “We thought having more art surrounding the library would be a good draw. We knew the tree was not going to live very much longer so we decided to have it carved into something.”
Cheryl studied the tree carefully and also its surroundings. She determined that the tree was probably hollow inside and it was also starting to split. “There really isn’t that much solid wood to work with in that tree,” she said. “I’m guessing it’s probably rotted inside.”
So in her presentation she proposed two innovative ideas. The first idea involved carving a figure at her home and placing it on the stump of the tree after it was cut down. Her design idea was to carve, not a Northwoods animal, but a human. “Chain saw carving humans is rarely done,” she said. “They are a huge challenge.”
But she convinced the board that she would create a carving of a child reading while seated on a tall stack of books. “I thought it would be appropriate and really different,” she said. The library board agreed and commissioned her for the carving.
Because Cheryl had never carved humans before, she decided to try creating a smaller version of what she had in mind. That figure gave her confidence but she also wanted to model the commissioned piece after a real human and so she enlisted the help of her friend Carly Seidl, who is 12, and a student at Nativity of Our Lord School. The little girl sat reading a book and Cheryl snapped photos of her as a reference. Last week Cheryl began the project and from a big pine log, a small girl-child emerged, barefoot, with jeans rolled ankle high. She is sitting on a high stack of books, engrossed in an open book on her lap. It captures perfectly why patrons utilize a public library in an innocent and nostalgic way.
Cheryl is not quite finished with the piece yet. She has some fine details she wants to add and is exploring what kind of stain will best keep the piece preserved for a long time. The carving is expected to be placed within the next few weeks. “It certainly was a carving that made me think outside the box but I am grateful for the challenge,” said Cheryl. “I hope it’s an inspiration for people when they see it.”
Editors note: To find out more about Cheryl’s artwork, and to see more examples of her work visit her website at theheartofthewoods.com.