News Column

Wood master

June 29, 2014

By Matt Smith, Cleburne Times-Review, Texas

June 29--At first glance it appeared a man was simply removing a dead tree trunk with a chain saw as I passed by on Farm-to-Market Road 917. Then I realized the top portion resembled a large bird. Intrigued, I pulled over.

"It's going to be a heron," Alvarado artist Pete McCaskill said of the still-in-progress work atop a tree trunk in the center of Joshua residents John and Cathy Brown's front yard.

Carvings of owls and hawks grace the tops of three other tree trunks in the same yard. McCaskill carved a large panther into a trunk near the Browns' garage next to a second trunk from which two panther cubs peer.

"It takes me about a week or so," McCaskill said of his tree trunk art. "Some chain saw carvers will do a piece in a matter of hours. I like to take a little more time, get things a little more finished. Then I put a little stain on, some sealant sometimes."

Another large tree trunk sits on the east side of the Browns' property.

"No, I climbed up and looked at that," McCaskill said. "It's too rotted and hollowed out to work with."

The heron tree trunk also has a hollowed out section. Fortunately, it's small enough not to affect the integrity of McCaskill's vision. Sufficient usable wood available, McCaskill said he plans to carve two herons into the trunk before explaining how he plans to carve around the base of the sculpture to portray the birds standing in water.

"The thing about outside sculptures is that sooner or later, with the wind and elements, they're not going to last forever," McCaskill said. "So I mainly do inside pieces."

McCaskill created the earlier works several years ago at the request of Cathy Brown, a former educator in Alvarado and Joshua.

"My mother, younger daughter and I vacationed in Galveston the year after [Hurricane Rita] and saw a lot of tree stumps that people had carved," Cathy Brown said. "Some of those carvings people had painted, like spotted dogs and stuff. I didn't like that because I think it takes away from natural beauty of the carvings."

The Galveston carvings nonetheless inspired Brown to do something with several of the dead trees in her yard.

"I got on the Internet looking for chain saw art," Brown said. "Everything I found was too expensive, but then my mom told me she saw an ad in the Times-Review for a whittler's club. They told me to try the Russell Art Farm Center in Burleson and that's where I found Pete."

An issue of Texas Journey magazine provided inspiration for the heron carving.

"It just showed up in our mail for some reason," Brown said. "But as soon as I saw the cover I knew that was exactly what I wanted for the big tree stump out front."

McCaskill takes a break from sawing away to point out the magazine cover, which sports a heron, provided by Cathy Brown as well as his hand-drawn rendering of the piece.

Joshua pride

McCaskill's earlier outdoor carvings on the Browns' property caught the eye of fellow Joshua resident Dana Bruce, who owns and operates Joshua Deer Processing with her husband, Tim Bruce.

"I was driving by one day and saw [McCaskill] carving the trees in the Browns' yard and stopped because I thought it was neat that he was carving them instead of just cutting them down," Bruce said. "And I walked up and said, "John Brown, what in the world are you up to now?'"

Bruce's daughter, Kerri Bruce, now at Texas Christian University, graduated Joshua High School in 2011. As a graduation gift to the school, she and her class, arranged for McCaskill to carve an owl, the school's mascot. That carving, plus another owl McCaskill carved for the 2013 class, now greets students and visitors entering the high school's main lobby.

School officials, Bruce said, often place blue graduation caps on the owls.

Joshua High School Principal Mick Cochran called the owls a wonderful addition exemplifying the tradition and pride of JHS.

"We wouldn't put just any old owls out there," Cochran said. "Mr. McCaskill put a lot of time and effort into those and did a great job. In fact, we designated the first owl as the centerpiece when we did our renovations on the building a few years ago and the second one is perched on a column overlooking the lobby."

God given talent

Born in Mississippi, McCaskill moved to Texas in the '80s. Though his interest in art originated in his youth, McCaskill worked as a draftsman for an architectural firm until, at the age of 43, he left the corporate world to open his own shop in Alvarado as a full-time sculptor.

McCaskill, in 2000, took lessons from Charlie Boren, a former Burleson principal and himself a renowned artist. Boren established Russell Farm Art Center in Burleson on the grounds of a farm that has been in his family for more than 100 years.

Russell Farm provides gallery space for local artists and offers classes and other activities. McCaskill often shows his work there, in addition to other places, and teaches classes.

"I feel God has given me certain talents, and am grateful everyday that he allows me to pursue my passion," McCaskill writes on his website. "Walking through a Texas field, some people see an old piece of wood not even fit to burn. But I see something beautiful hidden under that weathered and beaten surface. The wood was alive before, by God's grace. I have the opportunity and vision to bring it to life again."

McCaskill works in wood, stone and copper and said he strives to create unity between his vision and raw materials.

"It is the nature [of the material used] that directs me to its eventual finish as a piece of art," McCaskill said.

The cost of a piece depends on several factors, McCaskill said.

"Depends on if they want a piece of fine art, chain saw art or what they're wanting," McCaskill said. "Generally, pieces start at about $500 and can go up to $7,000 depending on what it involves. The chain saw pieces usually run in the $500 to $1,000 range."

McCaskill said he likes to tackle challenges while carving. Water, for example, the challenge of depicting water and movement in the herons he carved for the Browns in addition to earlier carvings of dolphins and otters.

"I was thinking of other challenges to take on and thought sound," McCaskill said. "How do you represent and show sound in a sculpture?"

McCaskill decided to find out and is now at work sculpting his first likeness of an actual person. The sculpture, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, is one McCaskill is crafting for himself.

"I play a little guitar," McCaskill said. "And Gilmour's a hero of mine and one of my favorite guitarists. I saw Pink Floyd a couple of times at Reunion Arena and the old Dallas Cowboys' stadium."

Gilmour's likeness, McCaskill said, is being carved into a great piece of wood rich in character and texture.

"I just went through a bunch of old pictures of him and found a good one from the mid '70s around the "Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here" period," McCaskill said. "It kind of looks like him now, but I still have a way to go on it."

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