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Finding Beauty in Destruction

by Katherine Walther

THE SWEET, PINEY SCENT of sawdust permeates the air in artist James Hixson’s studio in Fort Myers. Grappling with a chainsaw, flecks of wood adorn his hair and clothes. Sporting safety goggles and a mask, he moves nimbly about the large tree stump; man-handling the piece with grace and fluidity.

The roar of the chainsaw comes to an abrupt silence. He sits the bulky piece of equipment down as gently as if it were a teacup. He lifts his goggles off his eyes and stares at the root system in front of him. Pausing, and moving slowly about the piece, one can nearly see the wheels turning in his head. As a sculptor, Hixson must visualize each piece in nearly perfect detail; all the while allowing the natural curves and knots of a tree to influence the final product.

“I love to watch the creative process unfold. I never know exactly how a piece will turn out. Sometimes, the evolution of a sculpture takes weeks,” he says, while looking over his shoulder , the piece silhouetted behind him.

Hixson typically spends nearly 200 hours on a single sculpture. The process begins, of course, with choosing the piece of wood. After Hurricane Charlie hit the area in 2005, Hixson had a veritable gold mine of options. “It was terribly sad to me; driving around and seeing fallen oaks and pines that had probably stood for hundreds of years.” Instead of allowing the wood to rot or go to salvage, Hixson began gathering large pieces in his pick-up truck.

“I began to see this inherent connection between destruction and beauty,” he says, picking up his chainsaw in his studio. “Wood is the perfect medium to express the intrinsic qualities of inspiration: Wood is organic; an innate part of this earth and who we all are as people. However, wood is also rich and varied…creating a natural paradigm of originality and creativity.”

Hixson approaches each piece with the classic technique of wood craftsmen: with a 33cc, 14 inch bar, gas powered saw. “I use it to take out the unnecessary elements of the log, and thus create an in-the-round piece,” he explains. “It’s loud and messy, but it gets the job done.”

Next, he begins fine shaping the sculpture with an angle grinder. This smoothes out the lines and forms the piece. He then uses a rough grid sander to smooth the piece even more. After it gets to the exact shape and from that he wants, Hixson sands again with an 80 grid paper and finishing with a 220.

“I complete each piece with a detailed rubbing of linseed oil,” he says. “This brings out the natural grains and color of the wood.”

While adhering to the same techniques that wood carvers have used for years, Hixson adds a modern twist with his subjects. You will find no totem poles, bears or tiki heads in his repertoire.

Instead, Hixson’s subject is the human form; usually female. “I believe that the female form is a paradox; a mystery that I choose to explore. Both sexual and demure…graceful and strong...the feminine shape is a timeless ambiguity that all can relate to,” he explains. “Wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers: every segment of society has some notion of femininity. My goal is to explore this legend: this power of female sexuality.”

The roar of the chainsaw is nearly deafening as Hixson cranks it back up. The sound is both throaty and guttural; but in Hixson’s hands, it almost seems to purr. He’s working on a sculpture for a show in May in South Carolina. Titled ‘Sculpture in the South,’ it is an annual upscale art event that puts viewers up-close-and-personal with thirty-five of the nation’s leading fine art sculptors.

“I’ve exhibited quite a bit through the south and mid-west, but never South Carolina. I’m looking forward to their sweet tea,” he says with a smile.

Of particular interest to Hixson is the coveted ‘Quick Draw’ competition, where artists will compete to create a sculpture in only 60 minutes. “I haven’t quite planned yet what I’m going to make,” he says. “The piece of wood itself will determine the outcome.”

He allows each log, tree, branch and knot to determine a specific form. “No human models are ever used in these pieces, the trees themselves are the inspiration,” he says.

Hixson’s sculptures can currently be seen at Art in the Treetops Gallery on Sanibel, the island’s newest addition to the art scene. One of his larger pieces, ‘Luna,’ was recently sold to an island couple. “They bought it because it reminded them of a mermaid,” he says. “The curves of the piece do have a definite aquatic look to them.”

The artist’s success began at an early age. While in elementary school, he won a monetary award at an art competition. This interest flourished when in high school, he entered several sculptures in the ‘Governor’s Art Show’ in Ohio, and won a top prize. He then sold several pieces from the show and received commission for four more pieces.

In college at Ohio University, Hixson majored in Art Education, with an emphasis on Sculpture. He received several commissions while in school, including designing and creating an award for the Voinovich Center.
Hixson brought this love of art to south Florida, where he currently works as an Art Instructor at Gateway Charter High School and Rasmussen College. James views this experience as a venue to enhance his own art, while educating the community on creative expression.

The wood chips are flying now as Hixson methodically cuts into the large wood log. His lips are parted in a Cheshire Cat grin of satisfaction. It’s obvious that this man genuinely loves what he does. When asked how the piece will look upon completion, he merely shrugs, and grins again. •

from the May-June 2009 issue

“No human models are
ever used in these pieces -
the trees themselves
are the inspiration.”