- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2016

CHILLICOTHE, Kan. (AP) - Steve Holt laughs when reflecting on what he regards as three stages of emotion when creating public art.

The first stage: fear.

“You go, ‘Can I really do this?’ I’m right out here in front of everybody, and if I mess up, everybody’s going to see it,” he says.

The second stage is enjoyment, what he feels when he gets into a rhythm and when the tree trunk at the business end of his carving tools starts to look like the creation he had envisioned.

In the last stage, he feels a letdown, with the carving finished and no need to show up the next day. It always happens, and it takes about a year before he can view the final work objectively.

First, know this: Steve Holt does not consider himself an artist. “I just feel like I’m a guy who figured out how to do something,” he says.

But his work at Simpson Park will be seen by thousands of people, especially this weekend during the annual Chautauqua at the Park celebration in Chillicothe.

In a community serious about its art, Holt has used the trunks of dead trees as the raw material for his wildlife carvings.

The St. Joseph News-Press (https://bit.ly/2c8595o ) reports that his latest and most ambitious work gets a public viewing this week, a 21-foot-tall totem pole carved into a downed tree and set on a pedestal as a centerpiece of the park drive.

Into the pole, Holt carved relief images of a wolf, a raccoon, a deer and other creatures, with a large eagle on the backside to give an all-around view to park visitors.

His projects in the park, begun about three years ago, have grown increasingly ambitious. He began with a bear carved into a still implanted trunk.

It seemed imperiling enough, 9 feet off the ground and wielding a chain saw and mallet tools. In the case of the totem pole, the downed trunk stretched horizontally before being raised into place on Wednesday, but this posed its own problems.

“Getting the eye on the right side the same size as the eye on the left side was not easy to do when you can’t see the whole thing,” Holt says, explaining he would walk along the log and get the best perspective he could.

Other challenges creep up. An oil-on-canvas artist can usually depend on a uniform canvas. A tree trunk offers the unexpected.

In his first carving at the park, the wood had a small recess, where a limb had once emerged, about where the bear’s shoulder would be. Water collected there, and this had to be dealt with.

Two of the trees had been struck by lightning, and insects preyed on those areas. The carving with the bear cubs needed a work-around when Holt found 2 inches of rot just inside the bark.

“Something that was 30 inches in diameter at the top now was 26 or 28 (inches),” he says. “Now, I have less material to work with.”

With these, he found fixes. He learned that executing a vision sometimes requires a lightness of touch.

Holt started carving about 30 years ago after embarking on a career that suggested no artistic leanings.

Growing up in Trenton, Missouri, he studied agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. A member of ROTC, he became an infantry captain in the Army, thinking that might be a career.

After four years, though, he left the military and returned to Columbia to get a master’s degree. Working later for Butler Manufacturing, he moved around according to corporate needs: from Kansas City to Wisconsin to Illinois to Ontario, back to Kansas City, back to Canada, and so forth.

Though not a duck hunter, Holt took an interest in the beauty of decorative duck decoys. Spotting a couple of attractive items at one show, he had a hand on his wallet before having second thoughts.

“I did what I say is the ‘guy thing.’ I went and bought some wood and I bought some patterns and then I started making some decoys,” he recalls.

The first attempts were primitive, but he enjoyed the hobby. It proved a stress relief. He gave the decoys to family and friends, and he expanded his repertoire to include Santas and other carvings.

When Holt moved back to Northwest Missouri in 1998, he taught economics at the community college in Trenton while his wife, Vilma, taught stained-glass art classes. He also taught wood carving and formed a club for like-minded individuals.

At the Chautauqua, held in the park Saturday and Sunday, the 65-year-old Holt will be in the traditional arts area, demonstrating his craft. “I get to sit under a shade tree for two days and carve,” he says. “You can’t quite beat that.”

Within sight, he can spot tree trunks that would otherwise have been cut down and hauled away. Now, they provide one more bright spot at the city park.

“I’ve been lucky and been able to do what I’ve wanted to do,” he says. “I get interested in various things, and that’s kind of the crooked path that has brought me to this point.”

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Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, https://www.newspressnow.com

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