Sculptor puts new life into dead trees and sweet potatoes

In Maryland, a tree sculptor teaches children to carve sweet potatoes

Photo for The Washington Post by Mary Lou Foy.
Master woodcarver Jim Calder creates a giant dragon out of a dead oak tree in Maryland. Every time Mr. Calder carves a wooden sculpture from a tree stump, he invites local kids to workshops to learn woodcarving.

“I brought two sweet potatoes,” says 8-year-old Catrina Calingaert.

She stands with about a dozen other kids holding sweet potatoes. The youngsters from Silver Spring and Takoma Park in Maryland huddle around a guy with a beard who looks a little like Santa Claus. He sits low in a chair in front of a tree stump carved into the figure of a big wooden momma bear and her cub.

He’s Jim Calder, master woodcarver, the artist who carved the bear after the tree died. The Carter family of Takoma Park decided that instead of chopping the tree up for firewood, they would ask Mr. Calder to carve the bear family to mark the arrival of their first child, Ben.

Every time Mr. Calder carves a wooden sculpture from a tree stump, he invites local kids to workshops to learn woodcarving. Thousands of kids and their parents, and teachers all across America have joined him over the years.

“Only we use sweet potatoes, not the tree stump,” says Calder, a Baltimore resident who celebrated his 61st birthday recently. “They’re easy to carve right now, but when sweet potatoes dry out, they get hard like wood in three days, and after a year or two, they start to get hard as a rock and can last for 300 years.”

“Oh,” Catrina cooes. “That’s like forever.”

Over the next hour or so, Calder worked with every child, including some who were very shy at first, such as 5-year-old Eleanor Cardillo. But in no time, she and big brother Massimo, 8, were crawling all over Calder and the other kids to watch the magic he works on everyone’s potato.

After a quick scraping away of the skin, the pulpy-orange sweet potato inside glistened, and the smell was like an opened pumpkin. Calder gave each child a little wood awl, a tool good for making holes, and gently guided their hands as the potato was turned into a face, a bird, a fish, a flower or even a Christmas decoration.

“When you get home, paint your potato and let it dry out,” Calder said. “You can give it to your grandchildren some day.”

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