Woodcarver Kevin Showell said he often draws on his western roots for artistic inspiration. A native of Cody, Wyomingâ€”home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center with its extensive collection of C.M. Russell’s wild west bronzesâ€”Showell grew up camping and hiking in the mountains, searching for fossils and arrowheads and observing the wildlife.
Throughout his career, many of his carvings have had a wildlife theme: birds, moose, horses. His early work reflected his classical training and five- year apprenticeship with master woodcarver Chrisostimos Effrem, founder of the Woodcarvers Store and School near Lake Calhoun in South Minneapolis.
In 1994, Showell created his final project as an apprentice: a privately commissioned piece of outdoor art which stands on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, across the street from the governor’s mansion. It is a life-sized Grecian figure of a woman, carved from an elm tree.
“It was a tribute to my Greek teacher,” he said. “There are different stages in the apprentice system: after apprentice comes journeyman, teacher, and then master.” Effrem died last fall, he added. “I am a master now, but I haven’t used the title. It didn’t seem right, as long as my own master was still alive.”
Showell said he carved trees for more than a decade. His portfolio includes large wood sculptures of people and birds, Native American-style totem poles and famous literary and historical figures such as Don Quixote and St. Francis.
“In the beginning, everything I sold was by word of mouth; I never advertised. For 12 years, I had more work than I could do. I was always in work production mode. All of it was going out the door as soon as I finished it. When that business slowed up, I realized I had nothing to show people. I hadn’t created any structure for getting other work, no network, no advertising campaign. I had to learn how to use a computer.”
Showell said he now has pieces to exhibit, some of which will be on display during Art-A-Whirl at his studio in the Q.arma Building, 1224 Quincy St. NE. “I spent a lot of years concentrating on the master craft. Now I’m getting back to being an artist. Before I became a sculptor, I did a lot of drawing. I worked with pen and ink and watercolors.”
Although he has not specifically studied different types of birds, he said, he enjoys carving them. “There is something about the shape of a bird. It’s soft in a solid surface. I like getting that effect in wood. I like the colors, the movement, the way a bird cuts through the water.”
Last summer he returned to Cody, where he worked with Lester Santos of Santos Furniture to create an elaborate chaise lounge; they showed the piece in the Cody High Style Show, sponsored by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
Recently, he has been using metal to augment his carvings. “My wife’s Christmas gift to me was a welding class.” He has made metal bases for his carved wood pieces, and also embellished his animal carvings with metal: putting antlers on a moose or elk, for instance. “There are certain things wood does not do well. I’m trying to use metal for its strength and properties. I have found that combining them is effective.”
Showell said he is a sculptor, not a woodworker. “Woodworking, which is building stuff out of wood, is not my thing. There are too many straight lines. I really respect it, though. But where a woodworker spends half a day making a perfect dovetail joint, I’d rather carve something. I like to put carvings on pieces of well-made furniture. Woodworkers build cabinets, tables, jewelry boxes; I can supply the carving on it.”
Showell has worked on some pieces for the Aaron Carlson Companies in Northeast and created a deep relief (which is thicker than a bas relief) wall hanging, portraying the Stations of the Cross for a Catholic church. He said he enjoys working in the classical style. “When I’m creating something in the Gothic Renaissance style, I appreciate knowing that I’m using the old methods. I might be able to use some power tool to speed up some part of it, but the majority of the work has to be done the traditional way. It is rare; there are only a handful of people in the Twin Cities who know how to do it.”
Showell can be reached at 612-229-0787. His work can be viewed on the website Qarmabuilding.com, under Kevin Showell.