Artist chisels old trees into objects of beauty “
Artist J. Christopher White creates his pieces out of a medium that is centuries old. His wood sculptures are formed from long-dead juniper trees found only in the Palo Duro and Tule Canyons of the Texas Panhandle. There, on ranchland near Amarillo, grows the most dense and strongest juniper in the world.
In his studio in El Paso’s upper valley, J. Christopher slowly hand-carves the wood, turning the dry, misshapen chunk into a softly flowing form that incorporates the natural shading of the juniper. Then each piece is sanded using several grades of sandpaper and hand-polished to a high gloss. His themes are a reflection of his love and respect for nature: a kingfish flowing gracefully from a rushing wave, a falcon on the wing, and Indian busts with sharply defined facial structures. Some of these can be seen in a Paul Kayser Center atrium exhibit beginning mid-May. J. Christopher’s own face features a bearded chin and broad, white smile. His high cheekbones are a product of his Indian heritage and his blue eyes come from his Irish background. His ruddy complexion is distinguished by barely visible lines stretching outward from the corner of his eyes, the probable result of accumulated time spent in the wilderness. J. Christopher’s first pieces were on the order of “mini-sculptures” formed meticulously from the chalk from the chalkboard at his elementary school. He created intricate designs out of the long, thin pieces of chalk. “I learned detail work early,” he says with a smile.
After working toward a degree in wildlife biology from Texas Tech University he dreamt of working as a fire ranger. “I thought I could spend my days up in a fire tower by myself carving wood,” he explains. Instead, J. Christopher worked as a carpenter before deciding to return to school to study art. After attending art school in Mexico, he began to work fulltime as an artist in 1978. J. Christopher, however, admits to years as a starving artist. Even then, he says “I always did my best, never compromising my quality.” He considers the many hours of underpaid work as an investment in time, for now he has a reputation based on quality and a collection of pieces that he is proud of. The artist’s pieces have been sold to individuals and private collectors throughout the country and are on display in Preusser Gallery in Taos and Albuquerque, New Mexico; New Master’s Gallery in Carmel, California, and Brielle Galleries in New Jersey.
He also has a book currently in the printing phase called “Expressions in Wood” that includes full-color photographs of his sculptures along with poetry composed by the artist to enhance the meaning of each piece. He says he feels privileged to have his art and his poetry to express his Christian beliefs. “I feel really blessed to have a means of expressing something important,” the artist says. Many of his pieces have religious themes and emerge from inner conviction.
When J. Christopher gets an idea for a sculpture, he searches for a piece of wood that lends itself to that design. “Juniper grows flat and then it twists,” he says. “This helps give my sculptures the feeling of movement.” On his wood-searching expeditions, J. Christopher and a buddy or two must carry the piece of wood up the canyon. Some of the pieces weigh up to 165 pounds. So the artist occasionally begins to carve the wood where he finds it still in the ground. “I remove 90 percent of the wood when I carve. That can make it a lot easier to haul back. And when it’s in the ground, it is held there tightly while I work,” he adds.
J. Christopher is married to Sharlane White, a senior analyst in the Operations Project Support section.