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 government cache.
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 wood since.”
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 intoabout 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.
“I 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 bronze.
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 Nebraska farm.
“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 enter.”
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 wildmustangs 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 pieces.
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 recentcommission 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.”