Jeffrey H. Dean


Wood sculpture with burn marks

From the Ashes. Photo by Jeff Dean

Sometimes we find ourselves rising from the ashes when all we meant to do was get a tan. So it was for my first phoenix carving and like so many northern tales, it began with a Raven…

I was just out of sculpture school and living in yurts I’d built and moved to the hill behind our little community of Dogpatch. I was caretaking for neighbors in exchange for squatters rights.

The larger was studio, useful junk storage, and kitchen. I’d made a small wood stove with an angle iron frame and grate in the bottom of the firebox. It had two rods with hooked ends protruding through the top. With a makeshift ratcheting crank suspended from a rafter, I could raise the coals to just under the cooking surface. This way, cooking supper didn’t cook me out as well.

Well, that stove was the tool I intended to use to make my new raven carving it’s requisite black. I thought I was checking it regularly enough, but despite my best intention, it got a wee bit blacker than planned. The legs were ashes and smoke and it had taken on a simpler shape overall. Well, always one to see opportunity in disguise, my first phoenix and I were soon found rising to the occasion.

Back at Naguib School I’d spent time drawing at an animal sanctuary. I’d watched a raven perched on a branch with it’s head back eyeing me. I modeled it in clay and cast it in blue-black paper. This raven carving had started in a similar pose but no longer had the means to perch. My experiment had gone belly up and that’s how I mounted it, with marble egg nestled in it’s breast. I entered it into a Fairbanks show but despite it’s jurors choice and UAF museum purchase prize, I expect it now lurks among dusty mammoth bones, deep in the catacombs of the Museum of the North.

And so began a phoenix phase. My yurts sat among the birches whose seed scales littered the snow. Their fleur-de-lis shape suggests the rising phoenix and became the inspiration for a whole series of carvings. It’s a wonder I stayed warm. When I split firewood, every other piece went into a carving pile. In this spirit, I’d “salvaged” some arcs of a hollow cottonwood log from my neighbors firewood pile which I carved and burned through multiple iterations before they were finally abandoned as “finished.”

While I was working on these in 1984, I was among six sculptors chosen to make pieces for UAF. Ron Senungetuk, one of my teachers, was making a teak timber sculpture for outside the library. He knew of an old untreated cedar telephone pole. We went together to get it and I brought a piece into to the woods outside my yurts where I carved and burned and carved and burned. It now stands ten feet tall in the entry to the Great Hall. When I visit, I glance either way, and hugging the wooden base, give it a turn on it’s hidden swivel to catch the attention of the observant passers by.

After a fifteen year hiatus-phoenixia in the south, we returned to Alaska where winter solstice is cause for celebration and fire sculpture, the first of which was a phoenix. A large silhouette with fanning wood chip feathers and egg of ice within it’s breast.

After the fire died, we went into the workshop where a woolen rug was spread under circling bales. People gazed inward upon a blue egg nestled in its beach-stick and yarrow bower. The flame-shaped candles flickered and all was quiet in the darkened room. From the shadows came the voice of my daughter reading her phoenix poem, and at just the right time, the egg began to rock. It fell open and an orange phoenix looked sleepily about before spreading it’s wings and rising into the darkness of the hammerbeam ceiling to the surprise and delight of all.

And so for now the tale ends, with lessons learned and wood transformed. May we rise with gusto as life does bid, and leave the tans for fainter hearts.

Tall wooden sculpture

Rising Phoenix. Photo by Jeff Dean