Branching out in a fantastical world

Thomas Haapapuro approaches creating wood sculpture with a rare set of principles

08/01/2012 12:00 AM

08/02/2012 8:18 AM

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 don’t know yet,” he says, scratching his broad head. “I’ll 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 Ohio’s Appalachian Mountains.

Thomas carved a figurine for a project in his high school Spanish class and got called to the principal’s office, because nobody believed he’d made it. But he didn’t 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 isn’t 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 don’t catch anything, I won’t 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 can’t just free-form wood. It isn’t 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 doesn’t 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. I’ve 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 client’s 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 you’re done with it, and you have to throw it away. I’ve made bowls out of oak to show I could, but.”

Does he have favorite materials?

“Cherry and walnut. Every woodworker loves walnut, because it’s so dark; I don’t put anything on it but a clear finish. Cherry’s lighter, but it’s a warm, reddish wood. I’ll try any wood at least once, though. That’s why I got the apricot.”

Finding a link to buyers

In Haapapuro’s case, “get” means being at the mercy of the elements or folks who want wood hauled away.

He’s strict about principles: He wants to work only with downed or discarded wood that hasn’t come a long way to get here.

“Erin and I try to eat and live with that same approach. It’s 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.

She’d 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, they’d 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 wouldn’t be enough to work for him, if I didn’t see something special in his art.

“I am drawn to the way he uses the beauty and complexity of nature’s designs to inspire his creationsAn 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 client’s 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, “I’m taking a farmer’s 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 don’t work on commissions; I always work on spec,” he says. “Sometimes my stuff goes out (to galleries) and stays out. It doesn’t 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.”

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