Northwoods artist sees beauty in simple things
Ever since he can remember, Scott Schmidt has found joy in the wilds of the Northwoods. Learning from parents and grandparents the satisfaction of hard work that can bring hidden bounty from nature, he continues to combine a love of harvesting trees with his drive to create art.
“Art, for me, is being able to see something and read into it a piece of art,” he explains. “I can spot a chunk of tree and say, ‘That will make a musky or a cool back for a chair.’ I see it by spending a lot of time in the woods looking up and down and to the sides. You never know where you’ll find it.”
But then, the hard work starts for Scott. “Getting that chunk of wood out of the woods can mean sweat and strain, bug bites, cold and problems with breakdowns, jumped chain or dull chain in my saw. Then there’s skidding or sliding or carrying it out.”
Difficulties won’t stand in his way, though. He’s been working hard all his life, and he isn’t about to stop now.
“I grew up in town, in the small town of Glidden, Wisconsin,” he recalls, “but I spent summers and weekends on my grandparents’ farm.” Bernie and Hermina Schmidt’s small hobby farm was the place where Scott learned to love the outdoors: tending horses, cattle, hogs and chickens, making hay and cleaning the barn.
“Gathering eggs, milking, butchering, haying…it was all a lot of work, but fun, too,” he says. “Afterward, we would hit the creek, but sometimes the swimming hole was full of kids. We didn’t have any cell phones or video games back then.”
He liked school and played all the sports, but Scott discovered his true passion in high school art class. “My teacher, Brian Long, was wonderful,” he says. “Talk about things to do! I learned painting, still life, silkscreen, wood carving and making jewelry. He made art fun; the best art teacher any teenager could have.
“I also have to credit my Grandma Schmidt, who got me into drawing and making things out of cereal boxes and tape. Art was in my blood from an early age.”
But it was his father, Wesley, who taught him to really love hard work. “It’s from him that I got my drive, helping out in the woods,” says Scott. “He was and still is one hard working man. At 78 years young, he still works in the woods. What an office! I love it, and my love for the outdoors keeps getting stronger year after year.”
Knowing trees and understanding wood became vital when Scott started sculpting. “You have to know what’s going to happen down the road,” he says. “I learned a lot from trial and error. One of my first carvings – a raccoon – was great until I brought it in the house to varnish it. All of a sudden I heard this ‘Ker-pock Ker-pock!’ It cracked right through the eyes and nose.”
Experience has taught Scott when to sap-peel a log to aid drying, what type of wood is good for small added details and what kind of finish will make a carving able to survive the changing seasons outdoors.
“Cedar is great wood,” he explains. “Any big tree will get stress-cracks when you take a saw to it, but cedar is good. Knots make interesting designs, but the sap will ooze out of the knot and push against the finish.”
His favorite finish is a product called Australian Timber Oil that is easy to use and quick to absorb into the wood. “It keeps the wood from turning gray,” he explains, “and it really makes the wood glisten. Pieces will last a long time with an extra coat every year or two.”
Jack pine and red pine are also favorite mediums, and several dozen log pieces are stacked around Scott’s yard – some peeled, some not – drying for future projects. “I do most of my carving during the winter months,” he says.
“I was working on one small piece that I was turning into a snail. I had turned it over, and I noticed it looked like something else. I took it to a friend’s place and said, ‘What does this look like to you?’ He laughed and said, ‘the back end of a cat.’ I finished it off, stuck it into a hollowed-out log, and my friend bought it.”
The reward for Scott is seeing his art in homes and yards. Many of his clients have him come in and carve pieces on site. “I’ve done pieces on stumps and big fallen logs,” he says, noting the extra challenge of working with the owners’ vision and matching the carving to the setting.
This winter, Scott is adding a new design to his repertoire: totem poles. “I will be going to the library to do some research,” he says. “One woman wants bears on hers. The other one is meant to be done in the style of a man’s grandfather, who carved furbearer figures in two-foot sections that fit together.”
Selling at craft shows during the summer, Scott is done with that for the season. His creations may be purchased at various shops in the area, though, including locations in Rhinelander and Minocqua.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Living on the Lake and Northwoods Commerce magazines.