MELBA — Wood chips fly through Ryan Olsen's kitchen as he repeatedly strikes a block of basswood with his knife.
It doesn't take long for the makings of a nose and ears to take shape in the block of wood in his hand. While Olsen works, dozens of tiny wooden faces look on from his kitchen countertop.
Olsen's day job is teaching choir and orchestra to about 250 students in the music program at Kuna High School, but outside of school, he is an expert woodcarver specializing in caricatures. Olsen can transform a plain block of wood into intricate, exaggerated characters and even some familiar faces. Olsen captured President Donald Trump's famous hair and lips in wood form. He also captured the likeness of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and director Ron Howard's receding red hairline.
One of his favorite pieces is called, “Do I have a Volunteer?” It shows a magician attempting a trick of sawing another man in half, but things aren't going well.
Olsen's talents have earned him national awards and recognition. He is a member of the elite Caricature Carvers of America — a group that allows only 25 active members at a time. Olsen now runs the national competition for the Caricature Carvers of America and is teaching carving to others.
“He has a reputation among the woodcarvers here in the Valley as one of the outstanding artists in that genre,” said Doug Rose, president of the Idaho Woodcarvers Guild. “He has taught several courses to other artists to share his talents and approach.”
The woodcarving hobby started as a way for Olsen to relieve stress, and it still serves that purpose for him.
“This is how I survive the Christmas season every year,” Olsen said. “I'll be in here in a pile of chips while my kids are running around.”
Olsen got into carving while studying for his master's degree in opera and later while performing as a professional opera singer.
“When I was performing professionally, I would take woodcarvings with me wherever I went, and I would carve in different cities when I was going to sing somewhere,” he said.
Each opera usually lasted three weeks. By the end of it, Olsen's hotel room had a big pile of wood chips left behind.
“I feel horrible for the poor maids who had to clean up after me,” Olsen said.
As Olsen became more serious about his carving, he decided he wanted to learn from the best to get better at it.
Olsen brought his tool kit — which at the time consisted of ground-off steak knives and some beat-up chisels — to a woodcarvers jamboree in Twin Falls. While there, he took a class from carver Cleve Taylor, whom Olsen described as a legend.
The other carvers in the class made fun of Olsen's sorry-looking tools, until they saw what he could do.
“Cleve came over and grabbed one of my carvings and said, 'Now, you carved that with those tools?' Everybody kind of shut up after that, because they saw what I carved with those tools,” Olsen said.
These days, Olsen uses his own signature knife that he designed with a knife maker in Indiana. The knife is available for others to buy, too, and has been selling well, Olsen said.
Olsen continued to take classes in Twin Falls each year and entered his work into local competitions, where he received positive feedback that bolstered his confidence.
“Up until that point, I didn't have much confidence as a carver, but I went into that show and I got some great feedback from some great carvers who said, 'You're really good at this.' That kind of fed me, and I started doing more and more,” Olsen said.
He went on to take best in show at a national competition, appropriately with a carving of an opera singer.
Olsen said he's often asked about the source of his inspiration for carvings. As an opera singer, Olsen was good about studying his roles and creating characters. He was drawn to caricature carving for similar reasons.
Olsen added the exaggerated look of caricature carving also fits his personality.
“My personality is a little bit larger than life, a little exaggerated,” he said. “They say caricature is portraiture with the volume turned up.”
Olsen makes time each day to work on his carvings. He does it in the kitchen, because years ago he and his wife decided that if he was going to spend hours carving, he should be in with the family instead of out in his shop, he said.
Each piece takes Olsen about 15 hours to carve in basswood. He uses that type of wood because its tight grains hold detail and take paint well. He then spends another two hours painting each piece using an acrylic paint that's been thinned. A coat of oil is then applied to seal the paint.
The one thing Olsen hasn't done is figure out how to make a lot of money from carvings. That's due in large part to the fact that he's not willing to let them go.
“I get so attached to them that I can't sell them,” he said. “I have a really hard time parting with them.”