A Philly sculptor finds the best things when he chisels away everything else.
No matter how much fun Roger Wing has experimenting with ice and marble, when it comes to his work as a sculptor the Fishtown artist always returns to carving wood, always seeks to recapture the bliss he felt the first time wood splintered beneath the force of his hammer and chisel.
“I was really lucky to have fallen in love with the love of my life at an early age,” says Wing, about discovering woodcarving in a fine arts class when he was 20. “When I got my first tool roll of chisels and gouges I thought, why didn’t somebody put these tools in my hand when I was 10?”
Over the last 21 years, Wing has had plenty of time to reflect on why woodcarving affects him so deeply. Sporting a burly Jesus beard and a flannel shirt on a recent afternoon, the 41-year-old looks like a frontiersman and sounds like a poet—a sort of Michelangelo-quoting Sam Beam.
“I had always worked with drawing and paper, building with clay, painting—all additive—but once I began to take away material, it just clicked,” he says. “The carving process, the subtractive process, just felt so good.”
Since dedicating his life to sculpture, Wing has chiseled all kinds of materials: stone, marble, ice. Though locals may recall his latest work as the user-friendly, giant, anatomically correct ice heart slash liquor shot luge (created with husband and wife team Joel Erland and Kate Kaman) displayed at the most recent PEX HeartBurn party, Wing’s way with an ice-pick has led to regular invitations to compete in the world championships of ice sculpting in Poland.
Wing says that each material he works with brings a unique lesson. He says when you’re working with ice, you’ve got to really get over being precious about the result. You take quick, nasty, take-no-prisoner passes and you have to realize it’s going to melt away. Working with stone is labor-intensive and marble is “a dreamy substance” but still, it’s formal and foreign. Every time he works in another medium, Wing brings it all back to wood.
“[Working with wood] is so fast and immediate and familiar. It’s not as precious, it’s warmer, it’s more like flesh,” he says, as he gets up from the table and looks around the room.
Behind him is a carved bust of a female figure. The wood is the color of sand, with what looks like extremely thin strands of dark chocolate syrup pouring down the sculpture’s face and shoulders. It’s beautiful. Wing explains that the figure, just back from exhibition at the New Hope Arts Center, is carved spalted maple and that the dark strands are actually a fungi infestation, a kind of natural decomposition with the bonus of a beautiful aesthetic effect.
Wing finds the wedge of wood he’s looking for, a piece of mulberry from the Morris Arboretum. He holds the piece the way a sommelier would hold up a glass of fine red wine as he tries to explain why wood carving suits him as a world view.
“To start out with something, then find the form that was already in there and remove everything else that doesn’t belong,” he says. “The process if blissful and blessed and makes me want to do it more, every time I do it.”
If it sounds like Wing is religious about his work, he is. A member of the Arch Street Friends Meeting House, Wing says he came to his Quakerism “in a circuitous fashion,” after studying comparative religions as an undergraduate in California. It was through a fascination with the Japanese concept of Shinto that he re-discovered Quaker principles that some of his ancestors embraced.
“It’s all about simplicity,” he says. “The idea is that the mystical experience is ordinary. It’s happening all the time. It’s not something that’s rarified and separate from life. It’s right there.”
Even though Quakerism and Shinto may seem worlds apart, Wing sees a common thread, saying that both world views, like sculpture, are about recognizing unseen worlds, “that which lies within illusions.” It’s the same feeling he gets when he chips away at a tree trunk to release the figure he envisions inside.
“You begin with something and by taking away, it becomes more. It’s these sort of counter-intuitive puzzles that I like so much about Zen or Quakerism,” he says. “The idea that things aren’t what they seem.”
American Street in Fishtown is a long stretch of abandoned industrial factory shells, a reminder of a time when manufacturing was the backbone of Philadelphia’s economy, when local workers still made money making products you can hold in your hand instead of your head.
I follow Wing inside one of the brick buildings. Hidden inside this woodshop stand dozens of Wing’s figurative carvings: a life-size Amish-looking woman; a cross-legged man whose face, chiseled into stark, severe contours, seems crumpled into geometric grief; a totem mask hanging over a white marble bust polished smooth as baby skin.
Though he works part-time as a conservator and sidelines repairing stone, Wing doesn’t seek out gallery representation for the woodwork. He doesn’t attend artist networking events or pitch press reviews. His ever-growing body of work, these racks of sculptures, sit in the corner of this warehouse space unseen by crowds. Wing says he doesn’t mind at all.
“I don’t do this out of a desire to show it to people, I do it with a sense that it’s being seen,” he says. “It’s nice when it gets seen, everybody likes to get praise or compliments, but I feel like it’s every bit as important or more important, that it exists and not be seen.”
Wing is referencing Shinto again. In Shinto ritual, wood carvings are perfected and then immured, never to be seen again. Not that he necessarily consciously stuffed a warehouse full of sculptures in a deliberate homage to Shinto ritual; it’s just that his artwork is more about the bliss of the process than some kind of commercial success.
“As a student of art movements and artists, the message over and over again is abundantly clear: If you want to make money, make money. If you want to make art, make art,” he says. “Everybody has quotes about if you want to make money work in a bank. You’d be better off going to work at a job and painting on Sundays. I’m not trying to take anything away from commercial illustrators or people who do what they love doing in a commercial manner—I’m just saying that’s not what this is.”
A piece of driftwood dangles, balanced on a sculpture. It seems out of place. Wing lights up; he says it reminds him that we didn’t even talk about what he refers to as his whole other body of work: balancing driftwood on rocks at Penn Treaty Park.
When his son was born five years ago, Wing suddenly didn’t have time to idle away in the studio. But he did have 20 minutes to walk the dog every morning. So he started creating these ephemeral structures that relied on balance.
“Suddenly those 20 minutes a day kept me whole,” he says. Now, in addition to epic ice sculptures that have melted away and wooden sculptures locked up in a Fishtown warehouse, he has thousands of photographs of arrangements that took about two minutes to make and likely, he says, about two minutes to collapse. Like everything else, he dutifully brings the joy of the process back to his work with wood, his life.
“Don’t get too precious, don’t spend too long on one piece, don’t feel like you have to go back and make it more of anything. If anything, leave something out,” he says. “It’s what’s left behind that matters.” ■