It's a sunny day near the end of June. You can hear the corn growing in the eastern Iowa fields and you can hear the bantering of those who sculpt in wood as you hang around the Putnam Museum in Davenport. The big banner floating on the breeze over the white stone building says " WOODART EXPO". This is the local title of the show that is the premier competition and exhibition of wood as an art medium.
The museum foyer is alive on the Saturday of check-in. A crew of Mississippi Valley Carvers is busy checking things in, finding space on shelves, unpacking mailed works. Helpers and officials ( translated as people who look like they know what they are doing) are checking to assure that the sculptures are entered in the correct class among the 49 available.
The parking lot is a collection of machines of all types bearing license plates from most states and Canada. It bustles with artists and their entries, people carrying delicate treasures, sitting in the grass, remarking on who is entered this year and who isn't. Talk is all about the pieces that are flowing by, the newcomer that entered a mind boggling bust, a really humorous caricature and, of course, the judges.
Visiting artists, carvers, sculptors and folks who would like to be attend any of the 26 seminars and workshops that are going on at the museum and other places around town during the weekdays while the entries are groomed and judged and the ribbons are hung. The three judges come from the carving community having renown and reputation in several facets of wood carving. They judge on creativity, finish, overall appeal, technique and some other mysterious factors that are the subject of argument almost every year. They conduct critique sessions with the entrants as an opportunity for everyone to discover what they did right or where some improvement is needed to collect those illusive judges' points.
The exhibit opens to the public on Wednesday. Thousands of visitors pay the fees and experience the awe of over 400 carved works of art from as far away as Australia. In past years the international flavor has included The United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and others. The pieces are arranged in groups which include bas relief, human figures, birds, fish, abstracts, caricatures and more. Viewers are treated with a wide spectrum of subject matter and styles while they are encouraged to vote for their personal favorite. They have the opportunity to buy many of the works and to bid on any of the 25 pieces that were donated by world class carvers for the benefit of the sponsoring Affiliated Wood Carvers (AWC) and their goals to advance woodcarving as an art and to host the exposition . Successful bidders paid over $4000 for some extremely valuable works including friendship canes made from segments donated by a long list of carvers demonstrating myriad techniques and subjects. If scores of superb competing works of art are not enough, the visitors are additionally treated to an exhibition of related works. The 1998 special show was a display of selected pieces by Neil Cox of Toronto. Neil is a perennial winner of "Best of Show" honors and one of the world's finest sculptors.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday the exhibit is closed and well over 200 of the friendliest people in the world find their way to the banquet at a local high school. The food is plentiful and delicious. The talk is lively and new friends are made at every table. Dessert is served and Larry Yudis of the AWC takes the podium. Pandemonium reins as jibes and jokes fly around the room like whittlin' chips. Larry proceeds to recognize the winners of each of the classes and groups. He awards cash and merchandise prizes totaling nearly $18,000. These are the generous contributions of 51 commercial donors and the AWC. Most of the banquet attendees leave the building that night with a full stomach, a happy mood and a door prize.
Sunday wraps up the 1998 version of the "Congress" as farewells are exchanged and carvings are carefully packed and toted to the lot. Some of the carvings being moved away include:
"Best of Show", entitled "Blackhawk" by Dave Seagraves of Elizabeth, IL. Dave was a newcomer that came in and blew us away. His piece had an unusual finish treatment.
"2nd Best of Show", entitled "Beyond the Storm" by Chris White from Loveland, CO. This was one of three winners by Chris, all done in weathered desert juniper.
"3rd Best of Group in Birds", a bluebird by Bob Kroese of Pella, IA. The judges really liked the pine bough treatment.
"1st Best of Group" in stylized human figures entitled "He who gets it not" by Marv Kaisersatt of Fairbault, MN. Marv also got the Flexcut creativity award for this one.
"1st Best of Class" in canes entitled "Civil War Highlights" by Hershal Borders of Middletown, OH. You cane carvers will appreciate this piece.
"2nd Best of Class" in stylized fish" entitled "Moire Eel." The artist is Bob Gander from Saskatoon, Canada and a member of the elite WWW Mailing List. The piece is carved from Diamond Willow.
"4th Best of Class" in stylized human figures over 15 inches, entitled "Prayin' for Rain". This artist is also a lister and has the advantage of being the writer of this piece.
"5th Best of Class" in relief scenes, entitled "Home At Last", again by this writer, hailing from Bettendorf, IA. This piece won a first at the Iowa State Fair and a second at the Quad Cities Senior Olympics. It will be donated to the "Festival Of Trees" in support of the arts.
While competition is keen at the "Congress", everyone wins. Some don't take home ribbons or prizes but they take home ideas and techniques and maybe a tip on how their work can improve. They also take home the warm, fuzzy feeling of having spent a day or a few days with America's finest.
Anyone who wants to enter this foray or just get more information and a show report should drop a line to AWC Limited, PO Box 104, Bettendorf, IA, 52722.
William P. Wohlford <WohlfordWilliamP@JDCORP.deere.com>
About the writer
Bill Wohlford got his initial inspiration at Oberamergau about 20 years ago and has been carving ever since. He occasionally wins at group and class level at the International Congress and is a yearly exhibitor there as well as a volunteer and member of the Mississippi Valley Woodcarvers.
His carving subjects vary from realistic human figures to whimsical gargoyles and stylized females. He has done some works on commission for churches and for private parties. The piece pictured above and entitled "Home at Last" is an example of his latest technique that combines sculpting and painting. This motif has won acclaim and dollars for the Festival Of Trees local fund raising gala. Other examples of Bill's work can be seen at Quad City Arts Gallery and Goldsart Gallery in the Quad Cities.