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Ken Wisecup: Art from bones and deadfall

Article by Leah Lahtinen

Local Artists – April 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

TREES die for many different reasons. Some are felled for paper or lumber. Some are killed by porcupines or lightning or bugs. Others are weakened by old age. Standing deadwood in Custer County may find its ultimate end in one of many wood-burning stoves. Or, if it’s lucky, it may fall into the hands of Ken Wisecup, a fantasy furniture artist who specializes in creating new life from dead wood and bleached bones.

BLM wood permit in his pocket, Ken scours the woods around the Wet Mountain Valley searching for standing dead wood, which he cuts and hauls back to his shop on Highway 96, to be shaped and smoothed and polished into a chair or a drum or some other piece of furniture, glowing with the warmth of the forest. Although Ken says he’ll use anything that comes in the door, he prefers black walnut, or Ponderosa pine, and especially cedar.

Ken loves cedar. “I can find a piece of wood and sand it and shape it, and it’ll stay like that,” he marvels. “It just gets better with age.” He also hunts for antler sheds, using the buttons to ornament his overstuffed furniture. He says, “I’ve got a thing for antlers — because I can’t make them.”

“I love to create,” Ken says. “I like making stuff out of one log. I like to eliminate joining.” His goal is to build a piece every day. He’ll stop work on a larger piece to finish a smaller piece, he says, “So I feel like I got something done.”

Like a sculptor who works in stone, Ken says, “I’ll see a pattern in the wood. Sometimes, I’ll see two or three things, and then I have to decide.” He never knows what he’s going to see when he cuts into the wood. It varies from purple to light brown, depending on the age and the kind of wood.

This is his sixth year of being a wood craftsman. “I always wanted a shop,” he says. “I knew where the wood was. It was just a matter of doing it.” Friends and mentors Jim Stoddard, Skip Caldwell and Dan Weiss persuaded him to pursue his hobby. “I was fixing up the house and they encouraged me to build furniture,” he remembers. Ken also credits Eric Johnson, a marble sculptor in Redstone as being an inspiration.

Ken’s creations are more than just furniture. They are a statement of an artist’s passion for the medium with which he works.

A dealer in Jackson Hole started the ball rolling by purchasing a whole load of Ken’s creations in 1989. Now Ken sells through the Vail Mountain Trading Post, and has his work featured in its winter catalog. To request a catalog, call 970-827-4191.

Ken’s talent has not been allowed to languish under a bushel. Last fall, a representative from the Discovery Channel saw a photo of Ken’s work in the Rocky Mountain News and called and asked him to be on a segment of the program, “Start to Finish.” Ken went out the day before filming, and picked out a tree, and planned what he would do with it. Then, the camera crew came out early in the morning and recorded the process Ken goes through when he creates a unique piece of furniture.

The initial shaping is done with a chainsaw, an unlikely tool for an artist, and then with a chisel. When the wood is shaped, Ken uses a sander to polish the wood to an unbelievably glossy shine. The next step in the process includes the application of numerous coats of linseed oil, each application exhaustively buffed before the next. Ken says the number of coats depends on the dryness of the wood, and the particular look he is after. The more linseed oil, the darker the piece. The finishing touch is the application of two or three coats of Minwax buff, a kind of wax which protects the wood. It also must be buffed in between each coat.

When he watched the video of the program, says Ken, “It really gave me an idea of what other people see… I didn’t know.” The program aired November 15. As for future plans, Ken says, “I’ve got a big tree in Rosita I’d like to do.”

Leah Lahtinen lives in Gardner, between Walsenburg and Westcliffe, which is fortunate because she broadcasts for the radio station in Walsenburg and writes for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe.