Amber Jean says she started wood
carving "sort of by accident." She was a college art
student working in metal, who wanted to work in a larger scale but
couldn't afford the materials. She landed a summer job fighting
forest fires, and when she found out the district where she was
working was selling firewood, "it dawned on me that I could get
a tree for $5."
With the help of a smoke jumper, she
got a couple of trees and, in those pre-Internet days "got on a
Greyhound bus to Seattle, where I bought four excellent chisels and
mallets, and blew my $200."
When she got back to her wood, and
looked at the size of the logs in comparison to the size of her
tools, the idea of making a large-scale project took a back seat, and
"I decided to get a little piece and carve my mom a Santa for
Christmas instead of a big art school project." Still, it was
daunting to get the pieces of wood off the log -- until her
firefighting boss stopped by and let her know that she could have the
use, for the winter, of a chainsaw that had been turned in to the
As she has continued her work over the
years, Amber said, she learned woodcarving mostly by trial and error.
"I talked to people who did carving. In Montana, that was mostly
chainsaw bear people," she said.
After graduating, through her forest
firefighting gig, she met a logger with a cabin available, and a
retired woodworker -- named "Smoky" -- who wasn't using his
shop anymore. "I had a free place to live and a free shop. That
was almost two decades ago, and I've been making a living mostly with
She doesn't harvest her own logs
anymore, because those she works with are too large. Instead, she
has a hoist lift system in the new studio she moved into about a year
ago and has a circular sawmill
-- but still finds the multiple cuts she wants easier done at the
sawmill yard, where there's more equipment and manpower.
still use some of those tools that are nontraditional," Amber
said, citing pneumatic die grinders and metal carving tools. "I
still use the chainsaw, and I do use routers a lot to get rid of a
lot of wood," she said. "I have more chisels than I use:
the six or seven main chisels I use, they're really worn."
She has also
experimented with combining metal and wood, using chisel marks to
resemble hammer patterns and make wood like metal, layering stains
over wood to create a metallic look, or casting some wood carvings in
One of the pieces where she used some
of these techniques was "Amber Waves of Grain," an early
piece inspired in part by her grandfather, a Nebraska wheat farmer.
"'Amber' was an unusual name when I was a kid, and when we'd
sing the song" -- America the Beautiful, which includes
the lyrics "amber waves of grain" -- "I thought it was
cool my name was in the song. So I made up a story that it was
because my grandpa had wheat fields, that was how I got my name."
She also incorporated an image of a rattlesnake into the piece,
recalling a childhood event where she and her cousins awakened a
sleeping rattlesnake in a burnt-out church near her grandfather's
"All my pieces have their own
story, and a lot of the stories are superimposed from my life,"
Amber said. Often, she breaks the stories down into pieces, "pare
them down into a few symbols, so they're stories for anybody to
For example, the first bed she made
with carved horses came as a result of having spent time in the
mountains of Montana volunteering in Native American youth camps,
near where wild mustangs roam. "These are not Hollywood horses;
they were covered with dirt and grime. I watched two stallions
sparring one day, and where they had sweat hard, you could see the
coat underneath." The juniper which grows near her home in
Montana has a very red color, and Amber combined that with mahogany
to carve the horses as she'd seen them.
That piece has a Western flair to it.
At first, when people identified her as a "Western artist,"
Amber resented it. "I decided to do one really 'Western' piece"
and then move beyond that style, Amber said -- but that didn't really
happen. "I've traveled a lot, but I'm from the West. To me,
Western is adventure, 'don't fence me in,' break the rules. It really
is a huge chunk of who I am."
She's still making "Western"
pieces, some of which she has taken to an annual show where she would
bring one big piece to sell, then book commissions for the rest of
the year based on the impression of that piece. A grandfather clock
that incorporates carved wolves and a buffalo bench are among those
The buffalo was carved from black
walnut, one of Amber's favorite woods to work with. "For really
refined carving, I love mahogany or black walnut," with their
tight grains, she said, although she noted that her most recent
commission is with mesquite, and she's also working on a current
series of "reliquaries" sculptural pieces, which open with
metal hinges like a book. As Amber carves these, she said, she's
experimenting with different logs, some of which have been burnt in
forest fires and some which may retain their barks. "Each one is
really an adventure," she said.
For all of her pieces, Amber noted,
"The process is less to do with me controlling, and more of a
dance between the piece and I: whose leading whom when." She
keeps her focus on the carving and the overall design of the whole
piece, rather than specific joinery and construction, and "hates
sanding -- most of my pieces are finished with chisel marks,"
but Amber said, "Wood is still my main medium. I still prefer
wood over anything: the smell of wood and the look of it."