Woodcarving Wizards--artists' eyes see the life in the grain of the wood
Genesis Chapman, recently named a New Superstar of Southern Art, makes a menagerie of fantastical creatures with his family at their Bent Mountain workshop.
By Ralph Berrier Jr. The Roanoke Times Sunday, May 27, 2012
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
As work progresses on the lion puzzle, Genesis Chapman uses a band saw (above). His 4-foot-long Chinese dragon (left) has 60 pieces, is made from eight different types of wood including bocote, purpleheart, maple and ebony, and sells for $1,100.
Genesis Chapman works on finer details of the lion puzzle and uses a copy of George Schaller's book "Serengeti: A Kingdom of Predators" as a guide.
Genesis Chapman (right) makes pencil marks on a lion puzzle alongside his father, Peter (center), and younger brother, Noah, in their workshop. Genesis Chapman grew up on Bent Mountain and now lives in Richmond with his wife and daughter.
BENT MOUNTAIN, VA — Genesis Chapman still has the first woodworking project he made when he was 12 years old. It was a sword, about 3 feet long with a nicely curved hilt, carved on band saws and sanded in his father's shop on Bent Mountain.
His buddies, of course, each had to have one. Chapman began churning out an arsenal of swords, battle axes and "Star Wars" guns. The boys of Bent Mountain were well-armed with Chapman's wooden weaponry.
"I was obsessed with 'The Lord of the Rings,'" Chapman said recently while tooling around in the same workshop. "'Lord of the Rings' and reptiles were my obsessions."
He never outgrew those boyish infatuations. Chapman, 41, still carves wooden reptiles and dragons, and with his salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail, he looks like he could have been an extra in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy or "Braveheart." And people still want to own his work. The difference now is that they pay big bucks for those exotic pieces.
He makes a menagerie of fantastical creatures — fire-breathing dragons, unicorns and dinosaurs. What's more, the wooden sculptures are actually three-dimensional puzzles, made from interlocking pieces that can be disassembled and put back together again. His 4-foot-long Chinese dragon has 60 pieces, is made from eight different types of wood and sells for $1,100.
To be sure, Chapman is earning more national recognition for his work in fine arts. His abstract-looking ink drawings of the outdoors landed him at No. 57 on literary magazine Oxford American's top 100 "New Superstars of Southern Art" in March.
The wooden puzzles, however, are his way of maintaining a family tradition he learned from his father, woodworker Peter Chapman.
"I feel really lucky that I come from a creative family," Chapman said. "Learning in my dad's shop gave me an opportunity to make a living with my hands."
Little shop of puzzles
Chapman lives in Richmond, VA with his wife and young daughter, but he retreats frequently to a rented cabin on Bent Mountain near where he grew up. The inspiration he finds there among the mountains, woods and rippling creeks often finds its way into his drawings.
Best of all, when he returns to Bent Mountain, he gets to work in his dad's shop. Peter Chapman converted an old apple shed into a rustic woodworking shop more than three decades ago. He used to build custom furniture there with a small crew of helpers.
Then, one day in the early 1980s, he picked up a piece of scrap wood and sawed it into a puzzle. He discovered that by turning and rotating the wood 90 degrees while making the cut against the thin band saw blade, then turning it over and cutting the other side, he could cut curved pieces that could be twisted and locked together. The first interlocking puzzle-sculpture he made was a snake.
A funny thing started happening at the craft shows where he was exhibiting his work — the snakes started outselling the furniture.
When he added more exotic creatures — dinosaurs, whales, alligators and bears — the puzzles overtook his furniture business like wooden Godzillas trampling a city.
"I got to selling more and more puzzles, so, pretty soon I decided puzzles were all I should make," said Peter, 68, whose exclusive business has been puzzle-making since about 1989.
Peter added little flourishes inside the "belly" of each piece. He inserted a little mouse inside the snake, a Jonah in the belly of a whale, a clock inside the alligator (clearly inspired by "Peter Pan") and a bone inside the dog.
The pieces lock together and a small peg that doubles as the creature's eye ingeniously holds the whole puzzle together.
Genesis got his start making the puzzles when business was booming in the late 1980s and through the '90s. At its peak, his dad's business — Class Menagerie — was pumping out 8,000 pieces a year. Genesis especially loved making snakes and lizards.
"It took me five years to learn it all," he said. "Then I thought, 'Boy, it'd be cool to make a dragon!'"
So, he did. He began carving and cutting bigger pieces and selling them. As his dad and crew mass-produced puzzles for shops and galleries across the country, and as mom Jenny helped run the business side, Chapman started taking on custom-designed projects.
"Somebody will call and say, 'I got a bulldog; can you make a puzzle that looks like him?'" Chapman said. "I like to design new puzzles."
He left the mountain for a while to attend the Kansas City Art Institute. He came back to the Roanoke Valley and co-founded the annual "Stick to Your Guns" exhibit of contemporary art in downtown Roanoke, which ran for five years.
He received a master's degree in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University and decided to live and work in Richmond, where his wife, Terry Frank, is an attorney. The couple have a 4-year-old daughter, Evelyn.
He returns to the country frequently.
"One of the main excuses for coming back to the mountains is to work in the shop," he said.
Puzzle-making made simple: The basic shapes are carved out of wood, then the puzzle pattern is outlined in pencil. The piece is cut with a band saw, a tall piece of equipment with a thin loop of blade that can make curved or straight cuts. Making the interlocking cuts is the tricky part.
"On humpback whales, I'd be carving the belly, then I'd kill it," Genesis said. Workers have "killed" a lot of animals with bad cuts on the band saw.
Genesis was in the shop recently working on his design for a lion puzzle a customer had ordered. He made three prototypes out of mahogany, shaping legs and a head and carving the fine details of a mane. He used photographs in author George Schaller's book, "Serengeti: A Kingdom of Predators," as a guide.
Nearby, Peter worked on an owl puzzle and Genesis' brother, Noah, glued the wings on a flock of wooden hens. Skeletal forms of animal puzzles made the place look like a bizarre biology lab or perhaps a butcher shop.
After making a few marks with a pencil, Genesis placed the lion on the band saw, but the block of wood was too big for the saw. He held the wood at an angle to make the cut, which puts a lot of torque and tension against the blade.
"I'm more deliberate," Peter said while watching Genesis work. "He'll just attack it."
Suddenly, Genesis let out with a stream of bad words. He had not cut himself, but he had made a bad slice right through the lion's eye.
"Ah! I killed it!" Genesis hollered.
Peter, who has made his share of bad cuts over the years, looked at the lion and diagnosed that it could be salvaged. It could not be sold for big bucks, but somebody would buy it. Besides, this one was a prototype.
Genesis got over his disappointment.
"You do 20 or 30 of 'em, you're going to screw one of 'em up," he reasoned.
The Chapmans have made more than 100 different animal puzzles over the years, some of them just for fun. Some of the more exotic creatures would be too cost-prohibitive to make.
"We made an octopus one time just to see if we could," Peter said.
Genesis and Noah, 25, pointed to a shelf dubbed "The Island of Reject Puzzles."
"There's a 'dachs-agator,'" Genesis said, holding up a puzzle sculpture that's half-dachshund, half-alligator. He also pointed out a nearly life-sized human puzzle-brain.
Later, looking at the clean cut through the lion's eye, Genesis saw a possibility.
"Hey, he's just like Scar. You know? From 'The Lion King?'"
"Oh, perfect," Peter said.
In this case, the art truly was in the eye of the beholder ... and the lion.
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