If wood were water, Thomas Haapapuro would be a drowning man.
It juts out of every cranny in the carriage-house workshop behind his home in Elizabeth.
It pokes up at visitors as sculptures in his front yard and looms at them dramatically from walls and self-constructed shelves inside.
It crouches in massive piles around his yard, so he occasionally has to turn sideways to slip out to the street.
He stops to admire the dark orange stain of a recent addition to this graveyard of trees, fingering the severed trunk of the only apricot on his premises.
What use will the apricot be? I dont know yet, he says, scratching his broad head. Ill figure something out.
No doubt he will. His very name stamps him as a man of wood in Finland, where his ancestors come from. It means aspen (haapa) by the stream (puro).
The Charlotte transplant has taught himself to carve, cut and coax wood into shapes that flow and soar. He uses only downed trees; like Blanche DuBois, he has always depended on the kindness of strangers, who let him haul away debris created by builders or Mother Nature.
And like the pioneers who used a cow from the point of the horn to the tip of the tail, he asserts that Wood comes into my shop as a log and goes out as sawdust. He repurposes every chunk, from larger sculptures to mid-sized bowls and vessels to unexpectedly delicate jewelry.
Growing up with wood
Young Thomas grew up thinking wood was a way to keep the family warm. His grandfather worked in wood, as folks said when the boy grew up in the foothills of Ohios Appalachian Mountains.
Thomas carved a figurine for a project in his high school Spanish class and got called to the principals office, because nobody believed hed made it. But he didnt find his artistic center until a few years ago, when he picked up a crappy table saw and set it up in my kitchen under the tolerant eye of fiancée Erin Hubbs, a photographer.
Haapapuro isnt averse to risk. During the small recession of 2002, he lived by a lake in Ohio with a 17-foot canoe, a fishing pole, a frying pan and butter.
I said, If I dont catch anything, I wont eat. (That canoe stayed briefly in the main hall of his Charlotte house; visitors using the bathroom stepped in and out of it to get there.)
So after a false start in plaster carving, he bought that $90 saw and a book titled Woodworking Joints. Then came the deluge of wood.
With each tool, you add things to your armory as an artist, he says. I got a router, started getting some templates, then bought a chainsaw, so I could be fully sculptural.
You cant just free-form wood. It isnt forgiving. So my stuff is heavily thought out: I might make more than a dozen sketches, then do some two-dimensional drafting on my AutoCAD, then 3-D sketching with Google Sketchup.
In a world of his own
He doesnt like to do figurative work, especially human shapes. I want to create my own world, he says, though he does echo patterns in nature.
I was an introverted child, he explains. I spent all my time walking in the woods, putting pond caterpillars in aquaria, collecting insects. Ive tried to fuse these nature-based interests with the engineering aspects of my job, making something soft and organic out of something rigid and geometric. I try to knock the precise elements out of it.
His avocation balances his vocation: working as a landscape architect for Design Resources Group in Charlotte.
As a landscape architect, he conforms to city and county laws, the strictures of a particular parcel of land, his clients demands. As a creator, he answers only to himself and to the wood.
A painter can paint whatever he wants with no worries, he says. But wood is a living material; the little grains and colors and shapes comes from a biological system. Wood will move about 5 percent with seasonal changes in temperature and humidity, even if you put polyurethane varnish on it.
Some woods mean trouble. Oak, he says, is impossible to work with in a sculptural process: It likes to break just about the time youre done with it, and you have to throw it away. Ive made bowls out of oak to show I could, but .
Does he have favorite materials?
Cherry and walnut. Every woodworker loves walnut, because its so dark; I dont put anything on it but a clear finish. Cherrys lighter, but its a warm, reddish wood. Ill try any wood at least once, though. Thats why I got the apricot.
Finding a link to buyers
In Haapapuros case, get means being at the mercy of the elements or folks who want wood hauled away.
Hes strict about principles: He wants to work only with downed or discarded wood that hasnt come a long way to get here.
Erin and I try to eat and live with that same approach. Its OK for people to travel, but not wood.
Sticking to that belief found him a manager: Sharon Frazier, a retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher who had spent most of her 30-plus years with arts programs.
Shed known Hubbs for years and let Haapapuro take wood from the diseased oak that had to come down in her Dilworth yard. Later, he brought her a beautiful bowl made from the tree. By the end of their conversation that day, theyd discussed ways she could bring him exposure through galleries and the media.
His imagination moves at a speed that is hard to keep up with, she says. His only inhibitor is time. His day job is very demanding, but he sleeps very little and draws or carves into the wee hours. I love his creativity, energy and sense of humor, but that wouldnt be enough to work for him, if I didnt see something special in his art.
I am drawn to the way he uses the beauty and complexity of natures designs to inspire his creations An example is Barnacle, currently on display at RedSky Gallery. The shapes are inspired by sea barnacles. The design placement evokes the movement of the sea .It is beautifully crafted, each three-dimensional barnacle with a thin edge and perfectly carved bowl, revealing the shadows within.
Her clients success in shaping wood has translated to success in writing about it, too: first in articles for Scroll Saw Magazine, then in the book Fresh Designs for Woodworking for Fox Chapel Publishing. (Others are in the works.) He jokingly looks back on his childhood and says, Im taking a farmers approach: Plant many different crops, and if one fails, you can use another.
What will never fail, he thinks, is his desire to keep wrestling with wood.
I dont work on commissions; I always work on spec, he says. Sometimes my stuff goes out (to galleries) and stays out. It doesnt always find an owner. But I get to be completely my own boss and do what I have to do. Art is a compulsion for me.