SNOWMASS VILLAGE - John Doyle has done fine as a wood sculptor without any training.
In 1989, Doyle was spending his first winter living in Little Annie Basin, on Aspen Mountain's backside, when a friend, Ross Kamens, came up to visit. Kamens saw some photos Doyle had taken four years earlier on a trip to Alaska; the photos were of a friend of Doyle's father carving totem poles.
"He said, 'Hey, I bet you could do that. And with a cabin in Little Annie's - you need a totem pole,'" Doyle recalled Kamens saying.
Doyle had had some education in art. While enrolled in the architecture program at the University of Idaho, he had found himself itching to make art. "I always wanted to marry art and architecture," said Doyle, a 51-year-old who grew up in various town in Colorado and went to high school and college in Idaho before settling in Aspen, at the age of 19. And living on Aspen Mountain, with a quiet spring ahead of him, he had time to experiment: "It was real offseason and I had nothing better to do," Doyle, who had spent that winter waiting tables and bartending at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, said.
So Doyle carved his first totem pole. And Kamens had more advice for his friend: Doyle had a catering job coming up at the home of Nancy and Bob Magoon, prominent art collectors; Kamens said he should bring some photos of the totem pole to show them. The Magoons not only bought the piece, but displayed it at the front of their driveway. Soon after, Doyle was commissioned to make a totem pole for the Hotel Jerome, and his career was in high gear. He got a studio behind the Tyrol Apartments along Main Street, where he has been making large wood sculptures - masks, hands, and the totem poles that make up about half his business - since 1989.
That first totem pole, while it sold and earned Doyle the biggest paycheck of his life to that point, was not exactly well thought out. It featured images of a crow and a wolf - customary iconography for a totem pole - and a walrus. "I was reaching there. I got to the bottom space and didn't know what to do," Doyle explained. The piece, he said, "had a certain primitive quality to it." To sharpen his techniques, Doyle got pointers from local carver Lou Wille, a relative of Doyle's through marriage; Wille also loaned him some chisels.
"Basically, I winged it and just kept going," Doyle said of his career. Of his early work, Doyle says, "I was just average. I guess I'm just lucky enough to live in a place where people want to fill their homes and yards with large pieces of art. And I'm the only one around here doing this. Totem poles are more a Northwest coast art form."
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Not long ago, Doyle went for his first course of formal training in wood sculpting. A friend of his had been offered a scholarship for a week-long workshop at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, but had to back out just a few days before the course was set to begin. The friend encouraged Doyle to apply for the spot, but Doyle wasn't sure.
"I dragged my feet," he said. "You need to get them a lot of images, and I tend to focus on one thing at a time."
Doyle got it together in time and was given the scholarship. The class, which in Doyle's memory was called Carving for Dummies, and which was taught by Tennessean Craig Nutt, was an eye-opener. Doyle learned basics like keeping his knives sharp, and slightly more advanced techniques, like gluing pieces of wood together, which he had never tried.
"All basic stuff. But stuff I'd missed out on. Stuff I needed to know," Doyle said. "My chisels are sharper, and that makes for a better product."
He was also introduced to bigger-picture ideas about art that hadn't occurred to him much. "It's kind of an artist think tank," Doyle said of Anderson Ranch. "You see people do mind-blowing things. You see these wild things that you never would have thought of yourself, in ways you never would have contemplated. You understand just how many possibilities there are out there. It makes you work harder," he said.
Doyle had brought up the topic of Anderson Ranch on his own, and the way he spoke of it had the excitement of the recently converted. So I was surprised to find out that the workshop he had taken (which was, in actuality, titled Woodcarving: for fun and profit) was two summers ago. But Doyle's appreciation for Anderson Ranch is still vivid, and he has donated a piece, a large Maori mask, for the silent auction portion of the Ranch's Annual Art Auction, which is set for Saturday at the Anderson Ranch campus in Snowmass Village. In the silent auction, Doyle's piece will be joined nearly 200 other works, by renowned artists including Edward Paschke, Claes Oldenberg, and Enrique Chagoya, who recently taught at the Ranch and had an exhibition at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery; and by top local artists including Virginia Morrow, Alleghany Meadows, Stanley Bell, Pam Joseph and K Rhynus Cesark and Mark Cesark. The live auction features works by Enrique Martinez Celaya, Takashi Nakazato, the Maloof Studio, and locals Doug Casebeer, Rob Brinker, Andrew Roberts-Gray and Nancy Lovendahl.
"You see how artists give back, how it's not all about you," Doyle said of donating his piece to the auction. "You should be showing your ideas to other artists."
Coincidentally, the first piece Doyle created, the totem pole bought by the Magoons, was donated to the Anderson Ranch Art Auction several years ago.
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The cabin Doyle lives in, that he built himself in the mid-'90s in Little Annie, features designed carved into the timber and embellished wood surfaces, the sort of work he also does for other clients. But the type of work he most enjoys are large, free-standing pieces. In his studio behind Main Street is an oversized human hand. "Big heads, big hands - anything from the human body, but much larger than life. It's fun to look at things a little closer," he said.
One commission he recently completed was a tribute to a prominent Aspenite who died last year. (His client asked that the subject not be named.) The complex, imaginative and humorous 12 and a half-foot tall piece referenced climbing, with ropes and an ice axe; biking, with handlebars; the four elements and the four seasons; and included the image of Garuda, a half-man, half-bird creature who appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. For Doyle, the piece represents things he learned at Anderson Ranch.
"Totem poles are formulaic. They're not as interesting as they were at first for me," he said. "But an ice axe and handlebars - I'd never done that on a totem pole before."
Doyle has been thinking about several approaches to carving wood that would be different for him. In an attempt to find uses for long pieces of wood that would not result in a totem pole, he has sketched out a hand holding a .44 Magnum revolver. And he has been reflecting back on a gargoyle he made six years ago for a client in California.
"There's a lot of negative space, even though his mouth," Doyle said of the gargoyle. "A totem pole, there's no negative space. You're not taking away a lot of the wood. With the gargoyle, 30 to 40 percent of the original wood is gone."
"Anderson Ranch makes you think about experimenting more than you would. It broadens your choice of ideas," Doyle said. "I plan on going back as soon as I can. Even if I have to pay for it."