Creativity soars in variety of Whittle the Wood carvings as judges make their pick |

Creativity soars in variety of Whittle the Wood carvings as judges make their pick

Andy Bockelman
For the Craig Press


Carver Damon Gorecki sits on the bench he carved shaded by an eagle called "Freedom," for which he won the top prize in the Whittle the Wood contest.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

A smaller field of entries this year didn’t make selecting a winner any easier for the judging panel of the 21st annual Whittle the Wood Rendezvous.

Back in action after a COVID-19-induced hiatus, the yearly festival celebrating whimsical woodcarvings named its top award winners Saturday afternoon at Loudy-Simpson Park.

Carver Damon Gorecki sits on the bench he carved shaded by an eagle called "Freedom," for which he won the top prize in the Whittle the Wood contest.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

“Freedom” — Damon Gorecki; First place

Taking first place was “Freedom” by Damon Gorecki of Salt Lake City, an eagle aloft above a intricate bench.

Gorecki received a check for $1,000 for the win.

The seasoned artist has been in the mix of Whittle the Wood talent eight times, and while he has placed before, this was his first time winning outright.

“We just come to have fun, but if I can get something out of it, then I’m happy,” Gorecki said.

The eagle, looking similar to the bird that serves as this year’s event logo, was carved separately and bolted to the bench.

“There’s a lot of texturing, and it takes a lot more time than I’d like to spend, but I’m happy with it,” Gorecki said. “There’s no wrong way to do it, it’s just a matter of what you’re looking for it.”

Gorecki has crafted multiple benches in the competition — including a similarly aquiline seating with the same title from 2018 — though it wasn’t necessarily the style he was planning this time.

“It started out as a car, but then I got everything torn apart and decided it wasn’t going to be that,” he said. “This just kind of happened. That’s why I try not to plan. I always screw it up if I plan.”

Carver Chad Stratton poses with his carving, "Clink," for which he won both People's Choice and Artist's Choice at the Whittle the Wood contest Saturday.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

“Clink” — Chad Stratton; Second Place, Artist’s Choice, People’s Choice

While Gorecki may have taken the biggest prize, fellow Utah carver Chad Stratton had his arms full of the most honors, including the $750 check for second place following the plaques for both Artist’s Choice and People’s Choice.

Rather than exclusively paper ballots as in past years, QR codes also allowed spectators to vote for their favorite carving through their mobile device.

Appropriately enough, Stratton’s entry was a mixture of nature and machinery; “Clink” is an anglerfish with a robotic body.

“It’s kind of a steampunk fish. I’ve seen some pictures of things like this, so I thought I’d try it,” Stratton said.

He chopped his log in half early in the contest and used most of one half for a base with cogs.

“The fish is carved in one piece except for all the gears and fins, all that was added on,” Stratton said. “The bottom teeth were also added, but the top teeth were part of it.”

Stratton, who’s no stranger to awards at Whittle the Wood, has carved many animals at the contest in years past, including aquatic creatures such as “Release the Kraken” and “Honey Hole.”

This year marked the 15th time Stratton has visited Craig for the festival, and he was thrilled to be back at it after the event’s cancellation in 2020.

“I’m terribly glad to be back. It’s been a long year without it,” he said. “We get to see a lot of the carvers we don’t get to see. Half of them didn’t make it, but we’ll see them next year. This is like family here, and I always love coming back.”

Matt Ounsworth poses with his carving, "Moose on the Loose," for which he won third place in the Whittle the Wood competition Saturday.
Andy Bockelman / for the Craig Press

“Moose on the Loose” — Matt Ounsworth; Third Place

A more traditional form of nature took the bronze as “Moose on the Loose” earned Fort Collins’ Matt Ounsworth $500.

Ounsworth’s sixth year in competition proved another success, though 2017 was undeniably his best, when he won the grand prize and both Artist’s Choice and People’s Choice for the animal totem “Kindred Spirits.”

This year’s entry focused on a single animal, which Ounsworth worked hard to make authentic.

“The tree told me it was going to be a moose, and I’ve been wanting to do a moose for a while,” he said. “I had to join the horns on, it wouldn’t have worked as one piece. The antlers were very difficult, I’ve got them bolted on there.”

Though the carving largely features just the moose’s head, its base is a pedestal with hoofprints.

“I used the chainsaw for those tracks, then burned them and stained them,” he said. “Hopefully this way it’ll be around for a while.”


Carver Bongo Love poses with his carving, "Serenity," at Whittle the Wood Saturday.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

“Serenity” — Bongo Love

A different type of animal was featured in Bongo Love’s creation, “Serenity,” a plethora of butterflies amid flowers and leaves.

Rather than one feature viewable from a single angle, Love said he aimed for something that looked good from every side.

“I was going for more relief, like 360,” he said. “The world needs a little quietness and some calmness.”

The butterfly wings each have a slightly different design.

“They all resemble everybody in the world. I tried to put everybody in there,” Love said.

Love, originally from Zimbabwe, has come to Northwest Colorado from the Front Range 13 times and has enjoyed it every time.

“I learned how to carve in Craig, so for me it’s always like coming back home,” he said.

Carver Nate Hall poses with his carving, "Mother Earth," at the Whittle the Wood even Saturday.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

“Mother Earth” — Nate Hall

Second-year competitor Nate Hall, of Lincoln, Nebraska, went with a more figurative rendering of the natural world for his piece.

“Mother Earth” features a winged woman holding up the planet like a more feminine, angelic Atlas.

“It was something new to try, I’d never done this before, and this was the time, I guess,” Hall said. “I’ve seen images with Mother Nature with wings, so I thought I’d try that.”

The coloring in the work was a mix of brown wood, dark green and light blue for the globe.

Hall said he wasn’t originally planning to use so much paint.

“There were some other things I thought about doing but I kind of ran out of time and had some challenges,” he said.

Carver Jim Valentine poses with his carving "I Reckon So," at the Whittle the Wood event Saturday.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

“I Reckon So” — Jim Valentine

Salt Lake’s Jim Valentine went with a familiar face for his carving, “I Reckon So,” specifically modeling a steely-eyed cowboy after Clint Eastwood in the Western “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” with a line of dialogue from the movie also serving as the title.

“My mother’s actually a really big fan,” Valentine laughed.

Valentine noted that a human figure is challenging to get right, and while most of the body is one piece, he attached extra accessories with a gun and holster and a cigar in the cowboy’s mouth.

He also used dyes to give the shirt and pants some color.

“You put a couple drops in some urethane and it acts as a stain,” he said. “It really lets the wood grain pop out. I don’t like to paint it totally solid, because you don’t want it to not look like a woodcarving.”

Valentine said he didn’t quite get his pick of the draw as far as logs when the event started, which affected his options for what to carve.

“I usually come in with a few different ideas, but you never know what size log you’re gonna get,” he said. “It’s always a learning experience.”

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