A mesquite log meant to fire a barbecue pit sparked Harry Angel’s interest in more than smoked brisket. It ignited his imagination and instead became a glass-smooth wooden bowl, a family heirloom kept well away from conflagrations.
“I was looking at this wood, and it just took me,” he said of that day 12 years ago. He was living in Corpus Christi at the time, working as an electrician. “I love grain patterns, and so I just started experimenting.”
Now retired in Marble Falls, Angel works full time turning discarded mesquite and cedar into art. Although he has decades of experience working with wood, he never called himself a sculptor until more recently. He learned carpentry growing up with his grandfather, a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer living in Amish country. In the 1970s, he taught himself relief carving — cameos in wood — but never attempted to shape anything particular out of a raw, blemished piece.
After his first bowl — a term he uses loosely — he was hooked.
“A lot of people, when they say a bowl, they think round,” Angel said. “I don’t think in round or square because then I’d have to follow rules. I don’t like to follow rules; I follow the wood.”
After an early series of bowls, he moved on to sculptures, letting the wood tell him where to go next. From gray, weathered logs, he fashions delicate, smooth shapes in reddish-brown hues that look and feel as liquid as lava but are solid as stone.
Each piece must stand on its own to be viable, although Angel mounts them on stands when done so they are not easily knocked over. Most are eloquent and elongated — motion frozen in wood grain.
Angel begins the process by studying a chosen piece of wood. He might walk away from it for days, weeks, or even months before coming back to study it again.
“Every log has a different story to tell, and I just try to find it,” he said. Perfection is NOT what he’s after. “I look for those things that I either have to eliminate or incorporate. I look for the flaws, the uniqueness of the wood.”
The best pieces have wormholes, inclusions, and rotten centers that he can drill out, smooth off, or enhance. He uses dentist picks to clean out wormholes, which he sometimes fills with bits of turquoise and epoxy. He often leaves the flaws to add character to a piece; sometimes, the entire sculpture is one smooth shape with only the flow of the grain to tell the story.
Whoever ends up owning a piece becomes part of that story, Angel said. He numbers each one, leaving the naming to the collector.
“Some might say this looks like a lady or that looks like a bird, and it might — to you,” he said. “That’s art. I interpret what this piece of wood is going to turn into, and the person who buys it interprets what it will be.”
Each piece is logged and registered.
“It can be whatever you want it to be,” he said.
Cedar logs become outdoor sculptures, each piece finished using a Japanese method called shou sugi ban. He blackens the outside of the wood with a blowtorch and then scrubs off the charcoal before rubbing in tung oil. He includes stained glass, the bottom of wine bottles, and smooth stones, some suspended by fishing line inside holes. His front yard is an outdoor gallery of cedar sculptures.
Nothing in his work goes to waste. Bark and branches are ground up for mulch. Sawdust is given to friends who create raku pottery. Raku pots are taken out of a kiln while still hot and placed in sawdust and newspapers, which catches fire and creates a unique glaze.
“I’m a master at making sawdust,” said Angel, hefting up a log with one arm wrapped around it while easily holding aloft a sculpture in his other hand. “Finished pieces weigh much less. I put them all on severe diets.”
Angel’s work creates a lot of wood chips, too. He puts them in a pile next to his barbecue pit. Some of his wood does eventually become a well-smoked brisket after all.