By Bob Duncan
It’s something of an incongruity that one of the most innovative and influential carvers in the United States uses a humble found wood as his medium. Rick Jensen has been carving cottonwood bark—literally, the thick bark of dead eastern cottonwood trees, which Rick harvests himself in North Dakota—for 30 years. The Minnesota native has been teaching his techniques in classes, at shows, and in print for nearly as long; thanks to him, whimsical bark houses regularly appear at carving shows and competitions around the country.
“Rick didn’t invent bark carving, but he has popularized it all over the United States,” said Alan Giagnocavo, the publisher of Woodcarving Illustrated. “It used to be that bark carving was limited to wood spirits and the like. Now, thanks to Rick, we’re also seeing bark houses, castles, and lighthouses—pieces with incredible detail, but also a sense of humor, like Rick himself. Rick shares his talents, creativity, and techniques widely, which makes him an ideal Woodcarver of the Year.”
Rick started carving at age 7, when his father gave his first pocketknife to him. He whittled sticks for years, gradually learning to control the cuts. He carved his first decorative piece, a redwood ram, while in high school; Rick still displays the ram at home as a reminder of how far he’s progressed as a carver.
After devoting several decades to family life, education, and the Vietnam War, Rick returned to woodcarving in 1984. Soon after, Bobby and Vicki Thurman of Kansas City, Mo., introduced him to cottonwood bark houses and encouraged his enthusiasm. “Bobby and Vicki were really supportive of my whimsical houses,” Rick said.
In addition to the Thurmans, Rick credits the legendary caricature carver Harold Enlow with influencing his carving. “Harold taught me how to carve clean, and how to impress people when I carve,” Rick said. Harold taught him to hold an audience’s attention while carving by making dramatic cuts and telling jokes and stories.
According to Harold, he and Rick became instant friends. “When they were still having seminars at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., Rick would always be there,” remembered Harold. “I never saw him turn down anyone wanting help with a cottonwood bark house. He even helped our daughter carve a small house.”
“A few days ago, we saw a man at a woodcarving show with a table full of cottonwood bark houses,” Harold added. “He told us he had taken classes from Rick Jensen, and that Rick was a great inspiration and got him hooked on the houses. I’m sure there are many other carvers out there who would say the same thing.”
Now a favorite teacher at clubs and shows across the country, Rick began teaching by accident. “I was carving wood spirits in bark and attending wood shows, when I was asked to teach a class on bark carving at a club meeting in Ranforks, Minn.,” Rick said. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, but when I started teaching, things started to change. I was working on my whimsical stuff, and it just mushroomed from there.”
Soon Rick was teaching classes in the evenings at the late John Burke’s Western & Wildlife Workshop. One year, Rick coordinated with John to display his whimsical houses at the workshop. The workshop drew some of the country’s top carvers, including Jeff Phares, Janet Denton Cordell, Desiree Hajny, and Kirt Curtis. “I wanted the expert instructors’ thoughts on my carvings and techniques,” Rick said. “They gave me great feedback. Everyone said ‘just do more of it.’ Janet Denton Cordell said, ‘I could move into this one tomorrow!’”
After the day of classes, Rick took down his display—and John insisted he put it back up. “John told me he wanted me to teach a class on bark carving during the day,” Rick said. From there, Rick started teaching at other big seminars, including War Eagle Woodcarving Seminar in Bentonville, Ark., and Silver Dollar City.
Rick’s work continued to gain popularity, and he was featured in Vic Hood and Jack Williams’ book, Carving Found Wood. Rick’s carvings went over well, so Fox Chapel Publishing asked Rick to write a book about bark carving. Together with Jack Williams, Rick created the Illustrated Guide to Carving Tree Bark.
Since then, Rick has continued to refine both his carving techniques and his teaching methods. “I didn’t start out to be an instructor,” Rick explained. “It just happened. I’m a people person, and I like to make people comfortable. And whimsical bark houses are great for teaching carving. There are no rules, and no mistakes. You can always change things and fix a slip.”
Even after carving bark for three decades, Rick sees potential in bark houses. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done,” Rick said. “I’m teaching a new class this year. I combine several small pieces (add-ons) to create a large carving.” He has recently carved a few pieces from spalted wood, because the stronger wood allows him to create more intricate designs, but even then Rick uses the techniques he developed for bark. “Bark is a fun medium to work on. It’s challenging.”
“There is no question that Rick is the most influential carver I’ve seen in the United States in a long time,” said Vic Hood, a master carver and the 2011 Woodcarver of the Year. “You can’t go to a show anywhere in the United States and not see his influence. I’ve seen chainsaw carvers creating whimsical houses inspired by Rick’s work. At the 2013 Dayton Artistry in Wood show, I ran into Rick and I said ‘I see your handiwork all over this show.’ It’s mind-blowing how many carvings he influenced at the Artistry in Wood show.”
“I’m astounded at how he reinvents himself every year,” Vic added. “He’s moved from whimsical houses to tree houses and even boat houses. Rick adds a new twist every year. It’s amazing!”