Artists carve livings out of wood

With little sawdust chips scattered throughout his long white beard and sweat dripping down the temples of his face, Gordon Possien stepped back, sighed and looked at his carving.

"Not bad huh?" he said.

Possien is one of 10 contestants competing in the sixth annual Whittle the Wood Rendezvous. He has been making carvings since 1977 and doodling with wood his whole life.

"I used to whittle for a hobby," he said. "One day I saw a cigar store Indian and wanted to make a carving."

Three weeks later, Possien had carved a 6-foot cigar store Indian out of a tree and sold it for $500.

Since then, he has opened his own shop in Pitkin, and he has mastered his carving skills. He said the same 6-foot cigar store Indian he carved in 1977 can be carved in two or three days, and can be sold for $800 to $3,000.

Possien's son, Benson, also is competing this year. He said he picked up the trade from his father. The Possiens work full time, carving and selling their work in Pitkin.

Although both like what they do, they admit the job security isn't always the best.

"If you're looking for more secure employment, it's not for you," Gordon said. "It's not a weekly paycheck for sure," Benson added.

Although the elder Possien has carved and worked with wood for more than 20 years, one of the carvers in this year's contest said it was his first time using a chainsaw.

Pasipaoma Matandauk--apis--aa--notsva, who goes by Bongo Love, moved to America 4 1/2 years ago from Zimbabwe. While in Zimbabwe, Love grew up in a sculpture village and watched his grandfather make sculptures.

Love's interest in his grandfather's work spurred him to start making Shona Sculptures and hand carvings out of wood. When he moved to Boulder to teach children drumming, dance and storytelling, he found the Rendezvous on the Internet and thought it would be something he would like to do.

"I never knew something like this existed," he said. "I like to see all the new tools and see how they (other carvers) do it."

Although Love has never sculpted with a chainsaw before, he has lofty expectations.

"I am going to win," he said. "I have too. I came all the way from Africa to win."

Love doesn't consider sculpting a career like many of this weekends competitors, but calls it an "inspiration." This may explain why Love doesn't sell all of his pieces.

"Sometimes I sell them," he said. "Sometimes I forget about them, and sometimes I just look at them."

Love said he gets his ideas from events in his life. Although he doesn't consider wood carving a career, he said it offers him a way to express himself.

"I am having the greatest time of my life," he said with an ear-to-ear smile. "This is what I love to do."

Faye Braaten, the only woman competing in this year's competition, brought many pieces she has done in hopes of selling them. Braaten, who lives in Loveland, works in an outdoor studio and often carves trees in residents' yards. She said most of her stuff costs about $100 a foot, and allows her to make an alright living.

"I make better than minimum wage," she joked. "But I'm not rich yet."

Braaten got into carving wood when she was in Montana with her husband. One of her husband's friends was carving and wanted him to get into it. Because Braaten was into art, she decided to pick up a chainsaw and give it a try.

"I used to paint and draw," she said. "People are so amazed by this, they'll pay for it."

Wood carving has been popular in the Northwestern United States for a long time and has begun to pick up in Colorado, the Possiens said. Gordon joked that the carving trade takes "a strong back and a weak mind," but said the most important trait to have is creativity.

"You have to continually do new stuff or you'll get bored," he said.

In the future, Gordon plans to "phase out" a lot of his carving and focus on other aspects of his business such as doors and custom mantles. But, he admits, he won't ever be able to give up wood carving completely.

"It's something you don't retire from," he said while wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. "If you love doing it, you'll do it."

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