Group effort helps carvings get back on feet

Scott Swanson

Melissa Cheek has always appreciated public art and when she took over ownership of the Holley Market four years ago, she inherited a piece – a severely weathered carving of a miner that stood outside the store.

Once she got things running smoothly at the store, Cheek started thinking about two similar carvings she’d seen lying in the pavilion next to East Linn Museum, a restoration project that had never come to fruition.

All three had been carved by local artist Milton Dodge, now retired and living in Iowa.

“I always felt bad for those statues,” Cheek said. “I was remembering how neat they were out in front of the museum, as a kid. It was heartbreaking to me, seeing them there. I thought they needed to be with the other logger, out at Holley Market.”

So she stopped in one day and asked if the museum might be interested in selling them.

“They took it to the board,” Cheek said and, next thing she knew, she had two more statues, a gift – with conditions – from the museum.

“If we ever sell them, we have to give the money to the museum,” Cheek said.

She decided she was going to get them restored and started looking for people with the skills necessary to do so. Turned out, they lived just down the road.

“I loved the murals all over Sweet Home,” Cheek said. “I asked who did those murals and I heard about Jane MacQueen.”

MacQueen, who lives with her woodworker husband Bernard Gross on Upper Calapooia Drive, is an artist and muralist.

Gross is also a trained artist, having earned a master’s degree in fine art from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He paints, but most of his work has been done in wood – formerly as a decorative finisher and more recently specializing in plaster fireplace surrounds.

MacQueen has painted signs throughout east Linn County, particularly in Brownsville, and Cheek commissioned her to paint one for the store, which included a carving of a saw done by Gross, and to do a mural on an inside wall.

Gross said Cheek approached them about working on the statues last fall.

He was familiar with the statues, which had been on the ground at the museum since before he arrived in Sweet Home more than 18 years ago. They were in bad shape, he said.

As a decorative finisher, he’d done a lot of wood restoration work, he said, so this wasn’t new, but it did present challenges.

“They’d been outside for, I’m guessing, 30 years, uncovered. Where they made ground contact, everything from the bases to the ankles was completely rotting away. Both of their headgear was basically shot. The rims were broken off, rotted.”

The statues were carved from cedar, “but even cedar can’t stand contact with the ground for that long,” Gross added. “The bases were absolutely gone.”

Cheek’s husband David was able to procure an old incense cedar from a logging site near Cottage Grove, and Gross used a portable bandsaw mill to cut out the good parts for the lumber he needed to rebuild the statues’ bases.

He cut out the rotted parts, then created new bases, with carved ankles and feet, which he pegged and glued to the statues.

The logger from the museum was missing his entire left arm and the statues were missing implements – an axe for the logger and pickaxes for the miners.

One problem was that Gross hadn’t seen the statues in their prime, so he was forced to use his imagination to recreate them.

“I didn’t even have a photo,” he said. I tried to keep to the style of the original the best I could.”

Once he got the recreated wooden sections installed, his wife took over.

“She had taken photos before we did any work, so she was able to match the colors as best we could tell,” Gross said. “It had been painted a couple of times. The colors had actually been changed.”

The original statues were “beautifully done,” he said. “(Dodge) had a really unique style.”

The statues now have protective coatings and they’re under cover in front of the market, Gross noted.

“Even if they get some weather, they should be all right now.”

Cheek said they’re drawing attention.

“People stop and take pictures by them,” she said. “What’s funny is people don’t come into the store. They just pull up and take pictures of the store, with the old loggers.

“There’s not many moms and pops out there any more.”