Wednesday, July 20, 2011


"Just let me know if I can answer any questions," was the saleswoman's offer.

"I was admiring this work of Jeff...," I began, pausing for her to provide the correct pronunciation for Phares.

"'Ferris'," she said, finishing my sentence.

"That's an amazingly reasonable price for that work--$645," I commented.

"What!?!" she exclaimed as she rushed over to the wood carving in question.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

The National Museum of Wood Carving is perhaps more accurately named The Niblack Museum of Animated Carved Figures. (Although more accurate, it's a bit cumbersome.) The Museum is located just west of Custer, SD, and was originally created to honor the works of Dr. Harley Niblack, a Denver chiroprac-tor, who, at the age of 42, took up carving and animation with a vengeance and worked with Disney on animation projects.

The museum contains about 30 of Niblack’s wood-carved dioramas, many of which feature scenes of the Old West.

As a carver, his skill is clearly evident in the scenes of a dentist's office (above) and the barber shop (below). He incorporated his own system of motors and pulleys to make many of his hand-carved dioramas move. So highly regarded was he that three of the scenes in the museum had been showcased in the Smithsonian Institute before finding a permanent home here.

Other works show individuals engaged in everyday occupations, such as this lineman. The detail in the figures shows the carver's skill with wood.

The figures in this courtroom scene (right and the two close-ups below) show the work of an animator. The expressions and features of the figures are exaggerated more typical of a cartoonist than of a commis-sioned sculptor.

Neverthe-less, the detail is extraor-dinary. If you double-click on the figure of the attorney (left), you may be able to see tears from one eye running down his face and a teardrop on the tip of his nose. Pretty impressive.

Dr. Niblack is reported to have spent over 70,000 hours creating a world of woodcarving wonder.

On a much larger scale is this desk, which looked so large that it would have to have been carved in the room where it would be used.

The most interesting feature that makes this museum a "national" museum is its gift shop. Instead of the array of shot glasses, mouse pads, tee shirts, bumper stickers, and key chains, the National Museum Gallery (or gift shop) offers the carvings of over 70 woodcarvers for sale.

Here is a Normandy Chime clock created by Phil Deering. It took four months and over 220 hours to complete it.

This work (left) and those shown in the next three photos were examples of the works for sale.

These works extended the scope of a true National Museum of Woodcar-ving.

Because of the realistic quality of these figures, I think there was more time devoted to the articles in the "gift shop" than in the Museum proper.

Which brings us to Jeff Phares. He began carving as a hobbby in 1984, began carving full time by 1991, and quickly became known throughout the wood carving community as one of the Nation's best in his field.

Jeff has entered various competitions and has won many ribbons and awards. In addition, his work is featured in several galleries through-out the Country. Private collectors covet his work as they are drawn to his inspirational art.
The attraction lies within his ability to offer realism and natural character to all of his pieces.

This work, entitled "Medicine Man Bust," (right) was one of his works on display; it was offerred for sale at $1495.

The "Walks on Sacred Ground" carving was masterful. I spent several minutes debating whether or not to buy the work, mesmerized by the detail in this figure's face. Which is why that price sign of $645 seemed very surprising.

Well, as you might guess, it was all-too-surprising.

When the saleswoman recovered from the shock of seeing a price marker of $645 at the base of the sculpture and retrieved the true price marker, which read "$4499," she was noticeably relieved.

I commented, "That work is certainly worth that much" and silently expressed relief that my struggle with whether or not to buy the magnificent carving was soon resolved.