Loomis man’s wood designs command clients from around the countryLOOMIS — Technically speaking, Loomis artist Bruce Alexander, 72, considers himself a sculptor who works in wood, not a wood carver.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
LOOMIS — Technically speaking, Loomis artist Bruce Alexander, 72, considers himself a sculptor who works in wood, not a wood carver.
Alexander’s OK with the carver tag — he has carved his share of decoys — but his art has advanced well beyond the hobby and folk-art stage. Today he studies the Old Masters for inspiration and his varied commissions include everything from intricately carved architectural elements to detailed reliefs of African game animals and their life-and-death struggles for survival.
His carvings command thousands of dollars and can be found in the homes of America’s wealthiest business moguls and sportsmen.
For the 42,000-square-foot home of Dick and Mary Cabela, owners of Cabela’s, Alexander has carved several mirror frames as well as pieces for the Cabelas’ Roman and Egyptian rooms. He has also carved a fireplace mantel and several doors for their home in Vail, Colo.
Ironically, he has never met the sporting goods moguls but has worked though agents. He sticks to his carving niche and leaves the final carpentry to other professionals.
“I just do the carving and the contractors, whoever they might be, insert the finished panels in the doors,” he said.
Upcoming projects include carving a wooden eagle for a Brookings client and six corbels, or decorative brackets for a loggia — which he describes as “just a fancy name for a covered porch” — for a client in Florida. The pieces will be carved from antique cypress, supplied by his client.
“I’ve never worked with this wood before, but it apparently has a tight grain and is easy to work,” he said.
All of which is not bad for a second career.
“Most of my life my occupation was managing restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and I did carving mostly as a hobby.”
His high-end carving life began with a challenge.
More than 20 years ago, Alexander saw the work of famed woodworker Tom Julian at a Safari Club International show in Las Vegas.
“I complimented him on the cabinet work but I said ‘I really think the carvings stink.’ ”
Julian, in a phone interview from his “Julian and Sons” studio in Heber Springs, Ark., recalled the moment and telling Alexander to put his money where his mouth was.
“I said, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ ”
“He came through on his boast,” Julian added, and Alexander has worked with him ever since.
“Everything we do is custom work,” Julian said. “And every client we’ve had has been more than pleased with Bruce’s carving work. We often get comments like, ‘This is even better than I hoped.’ ”
Up to that point, Alexander was working on speculation. He would produce decoys or other carvings and then try to find buyers. It wasn’t a profitable way to do business.
Inevitably, Alexander would spend time carving a specific type of decoy only to receive requests from customers seeking another species of faux waterfowl. Only a few knowledgeable collectors appreciated, or could afford, the time and detail he would invest in each bird, Alexander said.
He was also bucking mass production.
“It’s not a very profitable business when you’re competing with plastic and fiberglass reproductions,’’ he said.
Today buyers are seeking him.
“Today all my work is done by commission, and it’s sold before I finish working.”
Alexander’s largest single carving to date was the front of an 8-foot-wide by 3-foot-high wooden bar in the salon of a 75-foot sport fishing boat. The subsequent relationship that Alexander developed with the boat’s owner earned him fishing invitations at ports from Maine to the Dominican Republic.
His skills have developed into more of a business than he ever expected, Alexander said, and his popularity allows him to be picky.
“I’m not taking everything that comes along,” he said. “I’m only doing the jobs that are interesting.”
All of which is not bad for someone who is self-taught, or as Alexander prefers to say, self-educated. “I went to a lot of trouble to educate myself on sculpting,” he said.
“I’ve studied all the carvers I could ever find, even the Old Masters and sculptors from way back. I figured if their techniques were good then, they’ve got to be good now.”
He has tried occasionally to develop apprentices but he hasn’t yet found a person with the talent, creativity and drive it takes to make it as a professional carver.
“It’s got to be a passion; you’ve got to be devoted to it,” he said.
The toughest quality he had to learn is self-discipline. As someone who is self-employed, “It’s awful easy to go and do something outside.”
Research work can sometimes be demanding, but necessary, because clients like the Cabelas are knowledgeable about wildlife.
“I have to be sure that when I do an animal like a kudu (an African antelope) it’s exactly right — the right habitat, the right size, the right type of kudu — because they very likely have one mounted in their trophy room. I can’t fool them and use generic animals, so I have to do the research to make sure they’re right.”
That’s a quality Tom Julian appreciates. Alexander isn’t a temperamental artist who can’t take criticism, he said.
“We’ve got a great relationship; if something doesn’t look right, I can tell him. Bruce has done a lot of intricate carving for us, and he’s super-diligent and super honest. He’ll work on it till it is right.”
Unlike many carvers, Julian said Alexander will spend as much time adding detailed background habitat as he will working on the main figure. Others will often knock out a generic background and move on.
Alexander’s notable commissions have included relief-carving on a $39,000 desk made of African Padauk (pronounced “paDUKE”). A fireplace mantel portrayed the “Big Five” of African safari hunting: the lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino. The mantel rested on the carved heads of a leopard and a lion.
Other pieces have ranged from the mundane to the whimsical.
An example of the former was a carved relief of a garbage truck, which Alexander made as a retirement gift for the owner of one of the nation’s largest refuse companies; an example of the latter was a carved statue of the cartoon character Grumpy, which was carved as a funeral urn.
“Lately the more weird or interesting a job is, that’s what I like to do,” he said.
Alexander charges by the carved inch. There wasn’t any guide for marketing, so he figured a way that worked for him.
“It was the only way I could figure to estimate my work,” he said. “I started cheap — about $1.25 a square inch, and went up from there.”
If the per-inch price reached the client’s pain threshold, he backed off. He declined to give his current rate, which is flexible, he said, depending on the person and the job.
He carves using an assortment of electric and air tools and pooh-poohs purists who say all carving must be done with hand tools.
“I don’t have anything to prove,” he said. “Anyhow, the average person wouldn’t want to pay for the time it would take to complete a piece using hand tools.”
Running a business is about doing one’s best, getting the job done and getting it out the door, he said.
He firmly believes the Old Masters also would have used power tools in their day, had they been available. The only drawback to using the tools, he said, is that they “make the cat disappear.”
“I’ll never retire. I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said.