Thursday, April 17, 2008
Every one of Paul Wilson’s wood sculptures begins and ends with what nature gives him.
“God in Paul,” is the phrase Bill Mack, a longtime collector of Paul Wilson’s wood sculptors, uses to define the sculptor’s pieces.
“Paul is aware of the wood’s initial beauty,” says the retired Carmel Valley architect, who owns about 35 of Wilson’s sculptures. Mack isn’t the only one who believes Wilson has an extraordinary ability to recognize the magnificence of wood in its natural form and bring it out through his craft: Wilson sees clients come and buy 10-plus pieces at a time.
At the Mid-Carmel Valley barn that serves as his studio, Wilson drifts around as if he is being carried by the calm wind that blows outside. His beard is the color of the silver Carmel Valley sky; his hazel eyes are warm.
Each creation starts with Wilson scouring the woods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.
“I gather all my own wood,” says the 80-year-old retired doctor as he runs a coarse hand over a sculpture carved from a piece of black walnut he and his son found 40 years ago in Santa Clara.
Wilson, who practiced internal medicine, says he uses everything from logged leftovers to virgin redwood root, which he extracts himself.
Wilson’s story has all the rich ingredients of a great American novel: a humble beginning on his grandfather’s Missouri farm, a rambling journey in the Navy air-care unit during World War II, a self-determined mission to complete medical school and practice medicine for 30-plus years, the commitment to his art.
Sadly, a diagnosis portended the story’s end a few short weeks ago: Wilson was told he has bone marrow cancer, and four to six months to live. He plans on “beating that limit.”
The high ceiling at Wilson’s barn-studio soars above hundreds of sculptures that fill the room with a forest’s aroma. His sculptures spill out into a small garden that sits next to a work area filled with every imaginable type of chainsaw, chisel, straw knife, angle grinder and sander.
Wood scraps of all size, type and condition are neatly sorted into various piles surrounding the studio’s outer banks.
Wilson shows two pieces he completed over the past couple days: a local sycamore with female curves comparable to the “Venus of Willendorf” and an abstract wall piece with several drooping holes cut from a Monterey cypress.
Most of Wilson’s pieces take about two days to complete. “I work very fast,” he says. “The stuff other sculptors do in days takes me about three to four hours.”
Wilson credits his grandfather with the spark that ignited his love for art and wood sculpting.
“[My grandfather] gave me two pocket knives by the time I was 9 years old,” he says. “We were always whittling.
“I see it in my head and I just try to make it; I never touch a pen to paper. The wood tells me what to do.”
He points to a tribal-like figure carved out of redwood. The figure has five rusty nails on its head and a scrotum that stretches from the figure’s middle section to just above a black stone with a white swirl painted on it.
“This is the only piece I dreamed, then made,” Wilson says.
While practicing internal medicine in San Jose, Wilson spent every spare moment sculpting at his then-studio in the Carmel Highlands. Upon his retirement at 62, Wilson delved completely into his lifelong passion.
Wilson attributes his success to his reasonable prices – he says many of his pieces are sold at the value of the wood in its raw form.
Wilson eventually makes his way to the barn’s back door, eager to talk about his art, reluctant to talk about his life.
“Dying is part of life,” he says. “I really can’t complain. I’ve been really healthy for my whole life.”
Since the diagnosis, Wilson’s daily routine has not changed and his artistic ingenuity and productivity have not ceased – he works every day. Other things have changed, however.
“My senses are sharper and I’m more observant,” Wilson says.
Torrents of birds flock to the birdfeeders surrounding the rustic work area behind the studio.
While Wilson sculpts, a quail comes and stands beside his foot. He says a blue jay used to visit frequently and would eat peanuts out of his hand.
“I guess [the blue jay] died because he stopped coming around,” Wilson says with a serene smile. “Now there’s a new one who won’t eat from my hand but he sits on my head sometimes.”