When Jim Mikkelsen tells a tale, he includes plenty of twists and turns.
In his home on a tree farm between Warriors Mark and Spruce Creek, Mikkelsen carves flowing abstract sculptures out of salvaged logs.
With each piece, the retired chemical engineer seeks to highlight features and grain patterns that reveal hidden secrets from the tree’s life: damage from storms, evidence of fungal and insect attacks, an arborist’s imprecise trim.
Often, Mikkelsen’s works display wavy “feathered” grain — evidence of growth recorded when trunks and limbs compress trying to occupy the same space.
“My philosophy is really to show as much of the tree’s story as I can,” he said. “I think of myself as a storyteller of the trees.”
His story dates back to his Ohio childhood and working in his father’s horticultural business.
From helping in the greenhouse, Mikkelsen learned how environmental stresses shape flowers, shrubs and trees, developing a deep appreciation for plants and nature.
After graduating from Brown University in 1970, he began a 35-year career in Massachusetts and California’s Silicon Valley developing semiconductor technology, managing a flat-panel fabrication facility and, at Stanford University, inventing a micropump. He also published more than 100 technical articles and filed for more than 20 patents.
He applied his intellect and creative energies to woodworking as a hobby in the 1990s after his father showed him easier ways of shaping rough logs than using traditional chisels and gouges. He first made free-form bowls — still a part of his repertoire — and started selling them.
Before long, the bowls began to evolve as more organic designs caught his imagination.
In 2005, he took an early retirement and, tired of Silicon Valley, moved back East. He intended a stopover visit to his family’s 145-acre McCorkle Tree Farm.
“I liked it so much I stayed,” he said.
These days, he enjoys a bucolic life in the woods, living off the land as much as possible and tending to it. He grows his own vegetables in a large plot, and has planted flowering trees and a butterfly garden on the property.
But he spends the bulk of his second life as an artist and forester exploring the beauty and characteristics of wood.
He has carved logs from more than 33 species, all removed by arborists, landowners or loggers and bound for fireplaces or the dump.
With a variety of saws, power carvers, grinders, sanders and other tools, he pares down the sections until they’re transformed into arcing, sweeping figures both graceful and imposing. His final shapes seek to integrate form, grain, color and defects into a unique record of a past life.
For instance, with one of several sculptures made from a cherry tree section, he highlighted the black stain caused by the tree’s absorption of a barbed wire strand — and even a bit of the wire itself. Sometimes, he leaves intriguing bark strips for textural contrasts. Some pieces include the swirling trails of boring insects.
“I look for features that are the most striking,” he said.
Each tree’s history dictates his artistic choices, whispering in his ear as he works.
“The story is in tree language, so to speak,” Mikkelsen said. “It’s hard to translate it to something other than its natural flow and beauty.”
One of his favorite pieces, “Black Fungi,” won a Merit Award in this year’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts 2013 Images Show. A juried member of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, he’ll show his work at the Guild’s show Oct. 11-13.
Mikkelsen also belongs to the Art Alliance and the Bellefonte Art Museum, where he has shown several of his sculptures. In May, he and his partner, local artist Sylvia Apple, presented a joint show at the museum titled “For the Love of Trees.” He hopes to organize another show at the museum next fall, bringing together fellow Central Pennsylvania wood artists.
The Gallery Shop in Lemont carries some of his bowls and smaller figures.
The latest chapter in his love story with wood centers on figurative sculpting.
Collaborating with Apple, he has branched out to nudes based on wax models.
As with his abstract sculpture, he generally keeps his sanded surfaces smooth without any added visual distractions.
“I’m really put off by the notion of leaving any imprints on the surface,” he said. “I’d much rather go to the effort of polishing the surface and letting the wood speak for itself.”
— By Chris Rosenblum