Awakening the wood: Spending time on the porch with woodcarver Richard Sorensen
By Katie Scarvey
Rick Sorensen might not have found his passion for woodsculpting had it not been for his wife, Georgia. She gave him a set of chisels for Christmas in 2006.
“It was basically a hint to do some more work around the house,” Sorensen says.
Up to that point, his only experience with wood was carving neckerchief slides when he was a Boy Scout in Connecticut ó a project that “didn’t work out,” he says.
More than 50 years later, creating intricately carved faces, wood spirits and walking sticks, woodcarving is working out for him after all.
Sorensen, who has sculpted about 25 pieces in the past few years, uses found wood for his projects. Since the area near his High Rock Lake home is heavily wooded, he hasn’t had to worry about supplying the raw material for his new habit. He and his wife happily forage for pieces of driftwood as well as wood from downed trees.
A piece of found wood may start out looking pretty rough, covered with mold and mildew before Sorensen cleans it up. It may even be infested with bugs, but he’s learned how to bake such wood in an oven to kill the critters.
When he begins sculpting a piece of wood, Sorensen doesn’t know what it will yield. Each piece has its own distress marks, cracks and personality.
He pays attention to what the wood tells him.
“I don’t design it; I release it,” he says. The name he’s chosen for his collection ó Awakened Wood Art ó reflects that sensibility.
His first carving, a wood spirit, hangs on a tree outside Sorensen’s home.
“He’s guarding the house with his good wishes,” he says.
Unlike some carvers who stick to soft, easily carved wood like basswood, Sorensen enjoys sculpting in harder woods such as hickory, walnut and oak.
Working with these woods is much more time-consuming. Carving oak, he says, “is like carving rock.”
His most recent project is an oak mural called “Emerging Spirits” that will feature six distinctly different faces.
“I try to never make any face be like any other face,” he says.
The Green Men stone carvings that grace medieval cathedrals were his inspiration, he says. Because there is so much leaf detail in Green Men, woodsculptors generally do not attempt them in woods as hard as oak.
Perhaps Sorensen gets his can-do spirit from his Eagle Scout background. He believes he holds the record as the youngest Eagle Scout ever, receiving the distinction at 12 years and 4 months of age.
While he occasionally uses power tools, most of Sorensen’s work is done with mallet and chisel. Respecting the beauty of the natural wood, he chooses to leave his work unstained, finishing his pieces with a clear lacquer.
Life as an artist was never on his agenda, Sorensen says. Retired from a 35-year career in health care, he was a senior medical care investigator on teams that looked into problems at Veterans Administration hospitals around the country.
“I was the malingering hospital director’s worst nightmare,” he says.
After he retired, he took a trip to Europe and says he felt a stirring inside that was triggered by the Renaissance art he’d seen.
He came home and read about how the old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo determined proportion. At that point, he says, three-dimensional art suddenly made sense to him.
He bought a few books on wood spirit carving and taught himself some techniques. He began to enter woodcarving shows and found he was winning every class he entered.
Sorensen has shown his work at the Rowan County Fair, winning a first place award in the sculpting category and best of show in the arts and crafts division.
His work can now be found at the Crossnore Gallery of Fine Arts in the Linville Falls area near Blowing Rock. The non-profit gallery, which represents national and regional artists, is associated with the Crossnore School in Linville.
A significant portion of the proceeds from the artwork go to the school’s Stepping Stones program, which is for teens who have been emancipated by their home county departments of social services but who still want to continue their education.
Sorensen’s work at the gallery can be found at www.crossnoregallery.org.
For gallery information, call (828) 733-3144.