WRITTEN BY SHEILA HELMBERGER | PHOTOGRAPHED BY SAVANNA SMITH
JIM HARTING IS SO HUMBLE ABOUT HIS TALENT THAT UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN INVITED INTO HIS HOME, YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER SEEN HIS WORK. There are shelves on the walls of the couple’s Brainerd home, an ornately surrounded face of a clock, and several carvings of small faces that are the results of hours, weeks, and years of detailed, intricate work.
While in Colorado visiting a cousin in 1999, Harting saw the finished products of a wood carver. “He was sitting on the top of a mountain on a wayside overlook and had his carvings laid out,” says Harting. He enjoyed watching the man work and admired his pieces so much that he bought two and told his wife, Paula, he thought he’d like to give it a try himself.
In Harting’s hands, a plain piece of wood, otherwise unremarkable, will become something completely different. He enjoys working in different styles. He says the faces he carves are cottonwood bark carvings. Lifelike, they are realistic right down to the cheekbones, eyes, and bristles of a beard. He says his shelves, often carved with oak leaves and berries, are old world-style carvings. No two pieces will be the same and Harting says sometimes it’s the piece of cottonwood bark that tells him what to make by its unique shape or an unusual characteristic.
When he begins a new piece, he first traces it out using carbon paper, and then, slowly, the part of the wood that doesn’t belong in the final picture is removed and lifted away using different shapes of sharp gouges and by tapping on them with a rubber mallet. He uses a set of palm tools to do the finer, detailed work. Little by little, a picture will begin to take shape. In its final stages the piece is lightly sanded and finished with a stain. There are hazards to being a carver. He says he keeps bandages around and has been known to use them.
When he crossed paths about a dozen years ago at a carving show with Izo Edin Becic from Moorhead, Harting found a mentor for his passion. “He’s a master woodcarver from Bosnia. He teaches classes and I asked him if he would do some individual training and he said he would. I’d go over there and we’d work on half of the carving and I’d come home and replicate what we did.” He is still learning from Izo today and asks his advice. Harting says when he first started he received some that would stay with him. “I worried about making a mistake on a piece and Izo said, ‘If you break it, just fix it. Who is gonna know?’”
Patience is always a virtue but this is especially true for a wood carver. Harting says he can’t begin to estimate the number of hours one of his projects takes. “Oh, lots and lots of hours,” he says, looking at one finished piece. When he disappears into the basement, he says his wife knows what he’s up to.