GARRETTSVILLE, Ohio — Joe Leonard has carved his career with just some well-used chisels, a little imagination and a lot of patience.
He’s been a custom wood carver for more than 35 years, creating the kind of art that few would even attempt.
In Leonard’s Garrettsville, Ohio, workshop, the wood shavings and the hours pile up week after week as the carver brings life to everything from winged lions to Mickey Mouse.
The shop is packed with a wooden zoo of sorts — horses, rabbits, a zebra, a giraffe, a fish. Every horizontal surface is crowded with papers, pencils, books and tools. Corners are full of carvings in various stages. A candle holder with a mischievous grin on its face watches over the small world of fantasy and mythical creatures.
The artist doesn’t keep track of how many pieces he’s created, but there are a few projects that stick out in his mind. Particularly the project he bills as his best piece ever.
That piece is a 9-by-8 1/2 foot armored Pegasus, or winged horse. Created in 1996, the Pegasus decorated a Cleveland home for many years before it went on tour in 2007 as part of the Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids exhibit that will travel through three countries.
“That’s essentially the best piece I’ve ever done,” Leonard said.
Leonard also has a 6 1/2 foot griffin — a half lion, half eagle creature carved in the late 1970s — in the exhibit. Mythic Creatures began at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City before going to The Field Museum in Chicago where it opened March 19.
From there, Mythic Creatures will travel to Ottawa, Canada; Sydney, Australia; and Atlanta, Ga. The tour ends in 2011.
The two carvings ended up in the exhibit through a bit of luck, according to Leonard. Organizers of Mythic Creatures saw his griffin in a book that featured wood carvings and asked the artist if he had a similar carving available for the exhibit.
Leonard told the organizers he had a griffin, then asked if they would be interested in his Pegasus.
Until they looked it up on Leonard’s Web site. After they saw it, the piece was a shoo-in, Leonard said.
The Pegasus in Mythic Creatures is the artist’s second such creation. His first Pegasus is in a San Francisco home.
Leonard is currently working on a third Pegasus. It will replace the current Pegasus in Mythic Creatures for the exhibit’s international tour, as the Cleveland owners don’t want their piece to leave the U.S.
While the Pegasus may be Leonard’s best work, it wasn’t the biggest project he’s ever done. One of the most monumental tasks in the carver’s career came in 1990 and 1991 when Disney commissioned him to create 17 armored horses for the Carousel de Lancelot in a France theme park.
Leonard designed each horse himself and worked with a team of four other carvers to create the carousel creatures in just 18 months.
Working 10- and 12-hour days, the team produced a horse every three to four weeks. The result was some of the biggest horses ever created for a carousel. Many are 7 feet tall, 6 feet long and weigh 250 pounds.
The final carving was the carousel’s elaborate lead horse, which took 18 days (and nights) to create.
The job was far from easy, but all that work does have an important distinction, according to Leonard. Carousel de Lancelot is the only carousel in the world with all armored horses.
A graduate of the Cooper School of Art in Cleveland, Leonard started out working at a small advertising studio, designing ads for magazines, brochures and TV.
He had an uncle who did some wood carving and he’d seen a couple of projects he wanted to try. The young artist belonged to some local clubs for wood carvers and through one of those organizations, he crossed paths with a wooden horse in need of some new legs.
After he carved those legs, he couldn’t put the chisels down. He got most of his training on the fly, teaching himself as he went along.
Today, his carvings are owned by collectors and dealers in France, Tokyo, England, Canada and the U.S.
Most of Leonard’s work serves as home decoration. His pieces are luxury items, with average prices ranging from $8,000 to $60,000.
Although he’s marketing his work to a select group that can afford it, Leonard said a customer’s desire to have one of his carvings often works to his advantage.
“People don’t need to have a horse,” he said, “but they want to have a horse.”
No matter what Leonard is carving, each piece has the same start. The artist begins by drawing a design on a sheet of paper. Once he’s happy with that drawing, he creates a cardboard pattern of the item he wants to carve.
That pattern is transferred to wooden blocks where Leonard uses a mallet and chisels to make his idea a reality.
Each item is carved in pieces for easier handling and the pieces are glued together when the project is finished.
“It’s like a big puzzle,” Leonard said.
But it’s a puzzle that never lacks for inspiration.
Although Leonard has created many pieces during his career, his well of ideas is far from dry.
“You get inspiration from car emblems, from wallpaper, from people’s clothes,” Leonard said. “It comes from all over the place.”
His creative mind finds motivation in everything from movie backgrounds to the pattern of a dog’s coat.
“I’m looking at the world through a different pair of eyes, when you think about it,” Leonard said.
A pair of eyes that opens the door to a world of winged lions, armored horses and smiling candlesticks.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)