Browse Michael Keller’s eclectic mix of wood carvings, and you will conclude immediately that here is a man with reverence for wood, and the ability to draw the mysticism from it. As he puts it, “wood holds a grandness in nature not found in anything else.” Keep browsing and you’ll discover that his sense of humor also holds sway at White Eagle Studios, the rather appropriate name for his carving endeavors.
“I am an eagle freak,” Michael told me when I asked about the name. “I am not even sure I can explain my love for eagles, but I do lots of carvings of eagles.” While that is true, it’s obvious he also does a lot of non-eagle carving. “I think woodcarvers often get in a rut,” he admitted. “They only carve decoys, or only Northwest Native art. I’m very fond of North Coast Native art, but I try to carve a variety of things. I tend to pick things from nature. The two hardest things for me to carve are smooth-featured animals like horses or deer, and nudes. I still struggle with female faces.”
While his web site sports a good number of eagles, animals and pieces of classic Native American imagery, his range hardly stops there. He dabbles in caricatures, like his gnarled trail boss, fictional characters, like Gandalf the wizard peering from a crystal, humor in the form of an eagle at a workbench assiduously carving a human nude, and even a classic pinup viewed through a keyhole.
Although he does sell some pieces, carving is essentially a hobby for him. “I’ve had a nearly 40-year career in securities regulatory compliance, which is about as far from carving as you can get. I help firms deal with all the new regulations that control the financial industry. As for the carving, for the most part I am self-taught. I learn largely from looking at other people’s work. The biggest motivators I have are going to shows, seeing the work of other carvers and looking at the real thing, at nature.”
“I’ve always worked in other fields and always done carving,” he recounted. I grew up in Salt Lake City and moved to Seattle at 17. There I met a teacher who took an interest in me and encouraged me to pursue several forms of art, including jewelry, clay sculpture and carving. While still in high school, I won two gold key awards from an art magazine for a fired clay sculpture and a sterling silver belt buckle. Carving wood, though, quickly became my favored medium. I loved everything about it. It has a great texture, is fun to touch, and it feels good when you are done.”
These days he lives in Chelan, Washington, a resort community whose population quadruples in the summer. “I live in the mountains near Lake Chelan at an elevation of 3,400 feet. I get to look out at pine trees and lots of wild animals. It is a wonderful environment for carving: very quiet and inspirational. I work from home, but we are so remote that even my Internet must be by satellite. The lots here are all 20-acre minimum size, and the winter population is probably less than two dozen, but I never felt closer to my neighbors.
“When I moved here, there was only one wood carver in the area. I set out a goal to convert the area to woodcarving and created a carving group that gets together at my studio once a week. I just started teaching carving this past year. I wish I had some guidance when I was younger and getting started, because I have a lot of tools that just live in a box and never get used.”
Of course, he also has a lot of tools that do get used. “For my larger tabletop size sculptures I use Japanese gouges handmade by a couple in Japan in their seventies. They look like jewelry, and I swear they have magic in them. I have all sizes of tools from huge sweeps to tiny Swiss gouges for caricature carving. I often take off the handles and remake them to fit my hands better. I also use a ton of Drake carving tools. For large roughing I use a die grinder and a chainsaw with a dime-sized bar that goes down to a point, made for precision work. I kind of like chopping at wood, and tend to use hand tools, like adzes, even for some roughing.
“I used to carve very intermittently, and often found that when I stayed away and went back to it, I was better. I think it is because even when I stayed away, I played with it in my mind. I still don’t think of myself as being good,” he admitted “and am often amazed when people walk in and respond to what I do favorably.”
A good example of that came about with ‘Spirits,’ a carving of an old man and an old woman which is about two feet across. “It’s carved of a very tight-grain cedar from Montana with a spalted area that was hard to carve. I entered it in the Kitsap County Carver’s show, and also volunteered to assist the judges. As a result, I walked around with them recording notes, such as compliments or criticism. When they got to mine, I felt a bit self-conscious, but they walked away without making any comments at all. I was devastated, because I thought it was a very good carving.”
“I came back Sunday night to pick it up, and it was covered with ribbons: peoples’ choice, judges’ choice, best of show, first place in category, first place in division and first place, as well as a few others. I was blown away.” On top of everything else, the piece holds a secret to which all woodworkers will doubtless relate. “Engraved on the far side are the words ‘With their eyes wide open to the future, the wise ones hid their spirits in the trees.’ That was in part a coverup, because I mistakenly cut the man’s eyes with the full iris showing round, something that rarely happens with relaxed facial expressions.”
When he is not carving, Michael writes a regular weekly carving column for the Lake Chelan Online News, which appears as a link to the official web site of Lake Chelan. “I do enjoy the writing,” he admits, “but the hardest part is coming up with topics each week. So far, I’m doing fine.” The column supplements his teaching endeavors, something he says gives him a lot of pleasure. “I get the biggest kick from the people who come to my classes,” Keller explains. “If you walk them through it step by step, they walk out tickled with themselves because they can do it. I get the biggest kick out of that.”
When it comes right down to it, though, it is the carving that he loves the most, perhaps for the process and experience even more than the results. “I think carving might be my religion,” Keller confessed. “I consider the act of carving to be quite spiritual.”