Making the cut: Judging the masterpieces of Whittle the Wood |

Making the cut: Judging the masterpieces of Whittle the Wood

Andy Bockelman
for Craig Press
"From the Ashes" was carved by Damon Gorecki during the 2022 Whittle the Wood carving contest.
Eli Pace/Craig Press

As a Craig native, my favorite part of summer for the better part of two decades in Northwest Colorado has been the Whittle the Wood Rendezvous.

I still remember catching the very first event in City Park as a teenager — reluctantly, of course, since it was not acceptable in my middle school mind to be seen with a parent in public — and seeing several weird and wonderful wood carvings that just days earlier were mere logs.

It was a fun weekend with my dad checking out crafty pieces by creative carvers and an easygoing concert, a festival that was quite different from anything we’d ever had in this town.

I was also pleased to learn a year later that WTW would be a recurring event.

It’s grown in some ways, remained the same in others, changed locations, but even 22 years later it’s still as much of a delight for me every time.

I started covering the Rendezvous for the Craig Press for the first time in 2008, and seeing it in that capacity only made me enjoy it more.

When I saw a social media posting a few weeks ago seeking community judges to discern which carvings would be taking home rewards, I was thrilled to volunteer. I don’t want to divulge too much about what scores I gave this year’s entries, but I will say that the expectations were far more rigid than I expected.

Ultimately it’s up to everyone to determine what they consider high-quality — traditional nature scenes versus wacky abstract ideas or heavily painted pieces compared to burnished works in multiple shades of brown — but the guidelines for judges require you to think what goes into each carving and how it comes to fruition.

I’ll discuss how this year’s eight entries stood out according to the judging criteria, at least in my opinion.

Context and clarity of intent

This standard has to do with the design elements of a carving and how well it adheres to the artist’s central theme.

One of the best thematic pieces I saw this year was Jim Valentine’s “I Listen to the Voices in My Tackle Box.” I saw Jim wearing a t-shirt with this joke while he was working on the piece, and it was clear that a seasoned angler made it.

Besides piscine likenesses on either side of the armrests of the wooden bench he put together, Jim put loving effort into several gently flowing rainbow trout intricately designed on the backrest. Clearly the work of a devoted fisherman.

Another entry I felt worked well in terms of theme was Nate Hall’s “Yellowstone Protector.”

Though certainly the smallest of this year’s carvings, there’s no confusion about what’s happening as you see a mother bison shielding her calf from a snarling wolf.

Nate mentioned to me after the fact that he had envisioned it as a single piece with different dimensions than the two separate sections that it wound up being. However, he was still able to stick with his initial plans, and that shone through in the end result.

Nate Hall kneels next to his finished carving titled “Yellowstone Protector,” at Whittle the Wood on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at Loudy Simpson Park in Craig.
Andy Bockelman/for the Craig Press

Effectiveness of design

For this part of judging, the terms balance, contrast and emphasis are key, and in this judge’s view, all the entries this year earned points in this category.

One that stood out was Damon Gorecki’s “From the Ashes,” the other of the two benches featured this year.

Whittle the Wood has seen numerous benches over the years and of those, several have featured eagles prominently. Still, I was very impressed with the dual birds of prey he crafted for this seating structure; a smaller eagle on its left side, with wings vertical, as well as a larger, imposing one on the opposite side, keeping itself aloft.

The fact that they’re not identical makes it more interesting and more of a viewing experience from every side, including the feathery middle between the two.

Speaking of a 360-degree presentation, Matt Ounsworth’s “Garden Party” lets you see something from every angle.

Perhaps the first thing you notice is the rooster on top of a tree, though you might be drawn more to the woodpecker or hummingbird a little lower, all of which are vibrant.

If you’re really paying attention, you may also notice a humble owl tucked away as well. Though less colorful, a trio of raccoons are on the middle of the tree, two of which are more relaxed with a smaller companion below who’s literally hanging out.

Finally, a cluster of flowers at the base mirrors the colors of the rooster’s tail feathers to give it an off-kilter symmetry.

It’s not a scene you’d likely see in a real forest, but it’s delightful either way.

Matt Ounsworth stands next to his finished piece titled “Garden Party,” at Whittle the Wood on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at Loudy Simpson Park in Craig.
Andy Bockelman/for the Craig Press

Use of material

The more of the log a carver can use the better, but that can be shown in different methods whether it’s all one solid piece or multiple chunks of wood reassembled.

Sometimes when you look at the final product, your mind boggles thinking, “That started as a simple tree trunk?!” I can’t say for certain if first-time WTW competitor Kadin Gurney was striving to keep his piece “Coming in Hot” as streamlined as possible, but he certainly succeeded. An eagle with its wings above its head clutches fishy prey while beneath a pair of bear cubs look on in amazement.

Besides the appearance of the animals themselves, the textures and curves of everything in the piece show just how much you can create out of a piece of wood, including a faux tree.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s fascinating to see how several smaller pieces can combine to make something unique, such as Chad Stratton’s steampunk racing snail “Twitch,” which takes its inspiration from “The Neverending Story.”

Given the animal’s already unusual proportions with antennae, shell and slithery body, the additional features like handlebars, bicycle seat, license plate and side boosters all feature Chad’s intricate design.

Separately, these pieces might make no sense, but put them all together and it’s a one-of-a-kind visual curiosity.

Artist Chad Stratton takes a ride with “Twitch,” the life sized racing snail at Whittle the Wood on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at Loudy Simpson Park in Craig.
Andy Bockelman/for the Craig Press


If an artist is working to achieve a realistic effect, how close do they come and how apparent are their skills in reaching this goal?

Some carvings we’ve seen over the years at the festival take some creative license with nature, though others attempt to stay as real as they can with their inspirations.

Case in point: Bongo Love’s “Lover’s Quarrel.”

A pair of skirmishing eagles fight it out atop a rock, with the birds’ bodies, clashing claws, and their makeshift perch all one hunk. Your eye is first drawn to the center of this battle as the two stare each other down.

Then there are their wings, made of four separate sheets from the same stump, heavily detailed and jutting out in every direction.

I’m sure Bongo could have crafted a satisfying depiction of this scene by utilizing the log as it was in terms of simpler dimensions, but his choice to expand the space makes it more true to life.

Bongo Love stands with his finished piece titled “Lover’s Quarrel,” on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at Loudy Simpson Park in Craig.
Andy Bockelman/for the Craig Press


This category is determined mostly by the final product, including any visible mistakes, pieces that are unsecured, incomplete varnish or paint jobs, or poor presentation.

Usually, the only reason for any of these is running out of time before the deadline, and as far as I could tell none of the carvers had this issue this year. Or at least if they did, it wasn’t apparent.

When looking at the finished carvings, each of them had their own individual charm, but I will say that my eye was immediately drawn to Joe Srholez’s “Big Kahuna.”

Artist Joe Srholez strikes a pose next to the “Big Kahuna,” on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at Loudy Simpson Park in Craig.
Andy Bockelman/for the Craig Press

The Polynesian tiki figure atop a wave stood out from the rest for several reasons: the exaggerated facial expression, a big splash of color, and well-crafted additions, in this case a surfboard snugly affixed between feet and water, plus two arms signaling “hang loose.”

Each of the judges this year can attest that there were no easy decisions in picking the winners since, as is the case most years, there were no bad entries.

But, I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we can’t wait until next year!

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