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Craftsman turns tree parts into masterpieces

May 17, 2012
By JEFF RICHARDSON , Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - To an untrained eye, the property surrounding Phil Marshall's home along Skyline Drive looks like it houses a vast, eclectic and surprisingly well-organized firewood collection.

Gnarled logs and brawny stumps are scattered throughout the woods, filling sheds and piled beneath overhangs. During a stroll outside, he stops to examine the various stacks as Skye, his spunky 4-month-old lab-husky mix, bounds through the snow after him.

Marshall speaks admiringly of the classic Alaska tree varieties, spruce and birch, but he's also fond of "trash species" like willow, alder and aspen.

Article Photos

In this recent photo, woodworking artist Phil Marshall looks out of a window in his drying shed at his studio outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Marshall is the creator of distinctive, one-of-a-kind wooden furniture. (AP photo)

"I love them all," he said with a smile.

But Marshall isn't necessarily interested in how they warm the pot-bellied stove in the corner of his shop. His fascination is more personal, as the creator of distinctive, one-of-a-kind wooden furniture.

Where most people see logs and limbs, Marshall sees H-logs, Y-knots and S-shapes - each waiting to be transformed into a bench, stool or even a Norwegian clothes hook. He's spent more than 20 years engaged in the pursuit of such pieces, which are organized into various places on his property.

Fellow woodcarver John Manthei said he's been in a car with Marshall when his friend will suddenly slam on the brakes and run into the forest. He's on the hunt after spotting a needed ingredient for one of his elaborate furniture sculptures.

After a few of those trips, Manthei said he's begun to see nature in a different way.

"He completely turned me around," he said. "I no longer see boards when I walk in the woods. Now I see all the phantasmagorical shapes Phil sees, which is nice."

They get transformed into everything from a traditional kubbestol - a Norwegian log chair - to a twisted, limb-covered throne that serves as a particularly imposing outhouse seat.

It's an unexpected vocation for Marshall, who grew up far from the northern forests in New York City.

Marshall came to Alaska in 1981 after finding work as an engineering geologist. When the economy collapsed a few years later, he shifted to teaching, spending his career leading math and science classes at Tanana Middle School, working as a ski coach, doing research for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and even collecting rock samples for the Park Service during a climb of Denali.

"You know how it goes when you live in Alaska," he said. "Sometimes you have to put a lot of things together."

A winter job as a ski instructor in Colorado in 1988 ended up particularly inspiring. A visit to a woodcarver's shop in Fairplay, Colo., introduced him to a new hobby and led his partner, Jan Lokken, to buy him a set of chisels and gouges for wood work.

Marshall wasn't especially good in the beginning, he admits, but he still found the process gratifying.

"That's my first piece," he said, pointing to a rough carving of a face that still hangs outside on one of his sheds. "It's a reminder to stay humble and hopefully things will improve."

The evidence of improvement came quickly. Inside his sauna is a beautiful, detailed carving of a bearded face, made just two years after his first effort. Marshall's house is filled with wooden sculptures and tools, some made by him, others collected during his travels. A twisted wooden spoon hangs in the kitchen, and carved wooden animals dot the bookshelves in his sunny living room.

Since then, he's traveled the world seeking out teachers to improve his skills. He said woodworkers tend to be a generous bunch, with a willingness to share their techniques and skills.

His visits to Norway, Austria and Poland included sessions with European wood-carving experts. He's also spent time in Michigan learning from German and Italian masters who now live in the U.S.

Once, while attending a friend's wedding in Poland, he made a quick friendship with another guest who was fluent in English and Polish. With a translator in hand, he decided to seek out some local carvers who could offer him some tips.

"I totally kidnapped him," he said. "I had a rental car, and we went all over the place."

Marshall said carving remains satisfying, but he hasn't found much of a market for such work in Fairbanks. His business, Polhavn Woodfabrik, largely focuses on the creation of natural furniture, an art he's gradually refined during the past two decades. Manthei said it puts Marshall in a category of his own among Alaskan artists.

Susan Campbell, a teacher at Anne Wien Elementary School, is a fan who owns three of Marshall's pieces. One is particularly special - a custom-made chair she bought for her husband, Keith Echelmeyer, who died of a brain tumor in 2010. It became his "special chair," fit specifically for his tall frame where he'd spend time meditating.

"We really love natural things, and Keith really liked that kind of furniture - bringing the natural world indoors," she said.

The work has made Marshall's life in Alaska adventurous. A hike with Lokken near Delta, for example, evolved into an expedition to retrieve an attractive 353-pound spruce log.

For Marshall, those trips into the woods often end with an armful of branches and newfound inspiration.

"Sometimes I'll go with a shopping list," he said with a smile. "Sometimes it's just whatever I find on a walk."

 
 

 

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