- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. Some of the best ideas for Chris Light's wood sculpture hit him right in the face. At least that's what happened with a piece he calls "As the Worm Turns."

"At 90 miles an hour, this worm comes flying out of this wood and hits me right in the head," he recalls about one creative brainstorm.

The flying grub not only gave Mr. Light a good reason to wear goggles; it was the inspiration to turn a chunk of pecan into a giant wooden worm twisting out of a lathe.

The piece is typical of his work one-of-a-kind designs that include sculpture, bowls and wearable hats created out of once-towering oaks and elm trees.

A rare knee injury three years ago forced him to give up his 30-year career as a deep-sea diving instructor. An unsuccessful operation to correct it caused further nerve damage and left him in constant pain.

When subsequent surgeries, medications and physical therapy did little to help, he took refuge in wood turning.

"To me, it's like therapy because I get so involved with it," says Mr. Light, 51, who lives in Fredericksburg with his wife, Patsy, and their three sons. "It's the only relief I get."

He dabbled in wood decades ago, but when Patsy asked him to make a four-poster bed, he really got hooked.

He set up a tent in the back yard, mounted a lathe on the picnic table and started experimenting with tools and techniques.

Never mind splinters, calluses and flying worms. Mr. Light's craft gives him a break from his ever-twitching toes, his nonstop pain and the wobbly feeling in his knee.

Besides, he's a natural. Even world-class turners want to know where he gets his original ideas.

"When I found wood turning, I think it was a blessing," Mr. Light says.

Anything can be a source of inspiration art, literature, TV, even a long look out the window.

An underwater experience in the Florida Keys led to "Nocturnal Dance," a teal tangle of sea worms and sea urchins carved from cherry and ebony.

His love of impressionist art planted the idea for "Gauguin's Pipe" a 4-foot smokable piece made of pine, maple and walnut. It's carved and painted with French handwriting and Polynesian murals.

The futuristic cartoon "The Jetsons" sparked Mr. Light's plan for "Saving the Planet," a conglomeration of space vehicles made from big-leaf maple, buckeye burl and other types of wood.

He draws from his Pueblo ancestry to give some of his work an American Indian flair.

He's crazy about birdbaths. He also loves to make Christmas ornaments because they're festive and fun, he says.

Mr. Light colors his creations with oils, acrylics and dyes. He also sprinkles in surprises, such as secret storage compartments and hidden shapes that can be seen only at certain angles.

He's happiest when he's working with solid oak because of its mass, power and character. He's not picky about the wood he turns.

Bring on the holes, knots and twists, he says. Imperfections in each piece add character.

He scours his neighborhood for "road kill" in the form of fallen trees. He cruises around town after storms, latches onto old fence posts and scoops up trees cut down by the state.

He doesn't have to hunt for all his wood himself, though. He gets plenty of help from friends and strangers who deliver logs straight to his door.

A mysterious man dropped off a recent gift of elk and deer antlers.

"I'll turn anything," Mr. Light says.

He hopes to keep coming up with new techniques and churning out original ideas. He plans to take his craft all the way, referring with straight-faced sincerity to Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

"I'm going to be a van Gogh. I'm going to be a Gauguin," he says.

"I'm going to pass world class."

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