Alberta sculptor carves new life into old trees

Darren Jones is particularly drawn to art that tells a story, which is evident in his carvings that feature multiple subjects

LACOMBE, Alta. — Many people see an old dead tree as having reached the end of its useful life. They knock it down, burn it up, chip it, or chop it into pieces.

But not everyone feels this way.

Tree sculptor Darren Jones from Ponoka, Alta., sees a valuable raw material concealing beauty within. With planning and imagination, combined with long-practised chainsaw skills, he reveals a new look for dead wood.

“When you put your talents together with someone’s vision it’s an interesting challenge,” he said.

Jones’s most recent work was commissioned by the City of Lacombe and sits in Popow’s Park, a green space with playground equipment.

He completed a 15-foot-tall sculpture last fall. It celebrates the fantasy and enjoyment of reading and imagination, with its tower of books, woodland animals and mythical creatures, at the top of which perches Sarwan, a long-tailed, caped dragon. The name Sarwan, meaning explorer, was selected from a draw of names submitted through the city’s Facebook page.

Attached seating near the tree’s base welcomes youngsters who prefer to immerse themselves in adventures on the page rather than on the playground.

Just a few yards away stands the Wizard, another work of art created a couple years ago via Jones’s chainsaw magic.

A directional driller by trade but now retired, Jones began tree sculpting 25 years ago.

“In ’93 my family bought me a chainsaw to buck up wood on my acreage at Rimbey.”

He said it wasn’t long before he thought, “I should try carving this.”

He said he was comfortable with the artistic process, having taken up water-colour painting in 1985 while on leave from work with a broken foot. He later taught himself airbrushing.

Jones is particularly drawn to art that tells a story, which is evident in his multi-subject carvings.

He said he was influenced by Frank Frazetta, an American fantasy and science fiction artist.

Further inspiration came from experiencing 3,500-year-old ruins while drilling geothermal wells in Turkey. He said that throughout history it’s a civilization’s art that remains.

Jones estimated that he has carved nearly 1,000 images, a mix of personal projects and commissions.

His first sculpture, The Rimbey Traveller, is a 12-foot-tall cloaked character carved from western larch standing in PasKaPoo Historical Park in Rimbey. He created it to thank the community for support his family received when his daughter, Cassidy, was battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the mid 1990s. Cassidy recovered, but cancer struck again. Jones’s wife Patricia died from breast cancer in 2016.

“I used it as my therapy to recover from the loss,” he said.

While Jones’s most recent sculptures celebrate fantasy and imagination, past works acknowledge the more serious and sometimes tragic occurrences in life.

Two memorial pieces are located at the historic Bellevue Mine in the Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta. They honour the 31 miners who perished in a devastating coal mine explosion there in 1910. One is a 35-foot overhead sculpture carved from Douglas fir and spans the road near the entrance to the mine.

In southeastern Saskatchewan, Jones created the Estevan Soldiers’ Tree Monument, which depicts battle scenes and service men and women from the Second World War. The 20-foot piece was carved from a dying, century-old cottonwood tree donated by a local family. Once completed, it was relocated to a place of honour near the city’s courthouse.

“Forever In The Clouds” is another of Jones’s works, situated at the Estevan airport.

It honours 20 Royal Canadian Air Force pilots and one ground crew member who died in a plane crash there in 1946.

“I made their lives relevant,” said Jones.

The group was en route from North Dakota where they had returned planes leased by Canada from the United States during the war. Jones said nine family members of the men who lost their lives welcomed him like a brother.

The connection with Estevan began through the meeting of Jones and Estevan resident Lester Hinzman at an oil rig at Torquay, Sask., in 2015.

In his off-time, Jones was carving a bench for his 50th birthday, when Hinzman happened by after delivering casing to the rig.

Hinzman shared memories of his father, a veteran of the Second World War, and his desire to pay tribute to the brave soldiers. Hinzman garnered local support for the project, which came to fruition in 2016 as the Soldiers’ Tree Monument.

Additional local connections resulted in Jones completing several more Estevan tree sculptures.

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Jones said.

“I feel blessed. And at the end of a project, it’s a great big hug, and, a lot of the time, tears.”

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