Mel Wheatley was 7 years old when he first tried his hand at wood carving, creating airplanes from pieces of balsa.
He turned his attention to other creative and artistic pursuits as he grew older, but after he retired, he went back to that early interest.
And it’s become a passion.
Next week, Wheatley’s skill will be on display during Artistry in Wood in Kennewick. He’s the featured artist.
The annual juried competition and show, put on by the Tri-Cities Wood Carvers Association, is March 21-22 at Tri-Tech Skills Center, 5929 W. Metaline Ave., Kennewick.
Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 21 and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 22.
Wheatley, 82, lives in Milton-Freewater.
He started the Walla Walla Valley Carvers Club and taught carving for about a decade at Walla Walla Community College.
Gary McAlvey of Walla Walla, a student who’s now an award-winning carver and instructor, said he learned just about all he knows from Wheatley.
“He has the ability to look at something and tell you how it should be. If you’re making a mistake, he can tell you how to correct it. He’s an all-around good carver,” McAlvey said. “To me, I think I owe him a lot.”
Another student, Dale Peterson of Walla Walla, described Wheatley as highly skilled.
“He is an excellent carver. I consider myself a pretty fair carver — he has taught me so much; it’s unbelievable,” Peterson said.
Wheatley said he loves the artistry and the challenge of carving. He can look at a piece of wood and see a cowboy or a saddle bronc rider, a dragon or a bird, a bear cub or a wolf.
Wildlife is his favorite subject. He works with wood from sugar pine to cedar.
Connie Gleason of Walla Walla, another student, said Wheatley’s pieces are special for their detail.
“His pieces are just beautiful,” she said. “He does animals that are beautiful. His relief carving is very detailed and intricate. It makes you want to work harder.”
Wheatley can spend hours at time on a piece, lost in inspiration.
“When you’re carving something, the picture
keeps coming toward you, and you don’t want to quit,” he said.
The 82-year-old worked in many fields over the years, from stints in the timber industry to welding and carpentry.
He completed his first soap carving at age 16 and earned a first-place ribbon, he wrote in a history provided to the Herald.
“I did a lot of drawing and painting during my school years that helped develop my artistic skills,” he wrote. “After school I switched to carpentry and creating functional pieces.”
Before he retired, he saw some stellar wood carvings at the Puyallup Fair and was inspired to take it up again, he said.
Wheatley said he hopes his work inspires others.
“A lot of people are afraid to try it,” but they shouldn’t be, he said. “It gives you a really fun feeling that you’re accomplishing something. The beauty of the wood, the character of what I’m carving — it makes me feel good when it comes out nice.”
Artistry in Wood will feature about 200 carvings, many of which will be for sale.
Wood and supplies also will be available for purchase, and a raffle and carving demonstrations are planned.
The cost is $3 for adults. Children 12 and younger are free.
For more information, go to www.tri-citieswood