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Carving out a new career

Josh Epping admits it was scary leaving his full-time job to pursue a career in art, but the Fergus Falls man is glad he did.

“There were enough coincidences in my life that have shown me this is the path I should go,” he said. “I am done going through the wall. I am living the happy life God intended for me.”

Josh Epping, of Fergus Falls ,stands with one of his chainsaw art pieces. Epping left a full-time job as a draftsman to focus on his wood carving craft. Photo by Carol Stender

His passion for art, especially wood sculpting, started when he was only 10, when his grandfather gave him a blank or block of wood. As the elder worked on his own piece, he taught his grandson the techniques of shaping it into art.

Epping was hooked.

A few years later, at a Trollwood art event in Fargo, Epping learned more at a workshop.

He quit sculpting to focus on school and work, but, in his mid-20s, he started once more. He took classes and began purchasing the tools needed to create the fine details.

When he wasn’t working as a draftsman for a Fergus Falls company, Epping was sculpting. He toyed with the idea of focusing on his art full time when he suffered a back injury. As he was lifting something, a disc in his back slipped and pressed against his sciatic nerve.

He had surgery, and during the recovery, began assessing his life and art.

“Before I hurt my back, I carved and thought, ‘when I get better…’ as I thought about leaving a job and sculpting full time,” he said. “After surgery I went to a carving school and then applied for a grant.”

His recovery took time. He walked often to gain strength and recalled it taking him two hours to walk around the block by his apartment building. But he did it, one step at a time.

He used that same process as he built his skills and made the transition to focus on sculpting.

A carving by Josh Epping hanging on a wall. Photo by Carol Stender

Epping got an apprenticeship with Izo Becic and his son, Dzenan. The Becic family moved to the area in the early 1990s to escape war in Bosnia. At their home near Baker, the family focused on wood sculpting. Epping began refining his talents from these wood carving masters.

Besides carving blocks of wood, he’s also created larger pieces using a chainsaw. He demonstrated the technique in June at Summerfest in Fergus Falls.

The creative process is the same whether he’s working on a block or stump of wood: He looks at the block and gets an idea for the piece. Then he sketches it, using his drafting skills as he creates it to scale, and transfers the image on a block using carbon paper. Then he gets his tools and starts carving the wood.

“Sometimes I will catch a grain (in the wood) and I will think, ‘Dang,’” he said.

He adjusts his sculpting to work around it.

“When I’m done, I think, ‘Oh, that worked well,’” he added with a smile.

It happened when he was working on a sculpture of a ferret. Originally, the ferret was to have both front legs spread out, but, due to a change in the grain, one arm was placed against the body. It works well with the piece.

Some of the carvings by Josh Epping, of Fergus Falls. Photos by Carol Stender

He uses a wide variety of woods for sculpting, including basswood, cottonwood bark, butternut, black walnut and oak for the smaller pieces, purchasing it from wood vendors. Any type of wood usually works in chainsaw art.

And he has a variety of tools of awls and sculpting items to create fine lines and details.

His open sketchbook reveals a few drawings of a braid.

“I’m trying to figure out how to do it,” he said. “I started it with clay, to work out how to make a braid, but right now, that’s on the back burner.”

He may work on several projects at the same, going from one to the other as the creative process and lighting changes in the room.

His workbench is set up in his living room, and his pieces are placed throughout the room. Some are 3-D, like the picture of a bridge that stands out in one wall hanging. Others are owls which show his detailing of the feathers. There are trolls and landscapes. And there are the blanks, blocks of wood waiting for Epping to shape.

“It’s just getting a perspective of the piece,” he said.

How long it takes to complete a piece depends on its complexity. He might work on a shelf for a week. He did a wood spirit face in two to three days.

He stains larger pieces and uses acrylic paints to seal the wood. The chainsaw carvings are sealed with a lacquer and UV protector.

As he learns from the Becics, Epping also teaches others. He is currently teaching a course at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D.

Carving isn’t all he does, Epping said. He also works in the area as a handyman.

“It seems like when I have a need, something comes along,” he said.

He feels guided in this artistic path.

“Faith, guidance, intuition and not doubting it, that’s what has been part of the journey,” said Epping of his decisions. His faith has been a mainstay for him.

“I was trying to get ahead of myself,” he said of his life before he left his job. “I had an inclination to do the carving for years.”

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