New pencil sculpture a ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ for Lake of the Isles

As spring comes to Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, the screech of power tools blends with birdsong during the home-renovation season. And for the past month, Curtis Ingvoldstad’s chainsaw joined the cacophony, as the sculptor transformed a downed bur oak trunk into an enormous No. 2 pencil.

As Ingvoldstad carved, homeowner John Higgins and his nephew Sam Buck launched a LOTI (Lake of the Isles) Pencil website linked to a QR code staked in the lawn. The pencil was selected, the site explained, because it’s an essential tool for carpenters and CEOs alike, full of potential to draft, derive and create.

“In these times of great bombast and hubris, the pencil is an enduring symbol of humility and epistemic rigor,” Higgins and Buck wrote. “Something penciled is something we are unsure of — something that requires further pondering, illumination and exploration.”

It’s rare for private homeowners to display their art as if it’s a civic amenity. But Higgins and his wife, Amy, hope the pencil will become a pop art icon in the vein of the Walker’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry.”

They’re inviting the public to the sculpture’s June 4 tip-shaping — with professional pencil sharpener David Rees (an actual person who sounds a lot like a “Portlandia” character) flying in from New York.

The quasi-public attraction, created as much for the community’s enjoyment as its owners’, will likely draw more visitors to the tony, tucked-away enclave than its privacy-seeking residents are accustomed to. Or, as the civic rabble-rouser @WedgeLive tweeted, “Here’s a story that will be irritating nearby mansion owners.”

The pencil was born, in a sense, one morning in June 2017, when the sky turned eerily green and a ferocious wind kicked up. Though the storm lasted only a few minutes, Higgins recalled, the damage was shocking: The upper canopy of a huge, 180-year-old oak in his front lawn was shorn right off.

“It was a magnificent tree, beautiful to look at from any window and our front terrace,” Higgins remembered. “We felt like we had lost a friend.”

After cleaning up the branches, the Higgins family couldn’t bring themselves to cut down the trunk. They began to consider giving it new life as an artwork-slash-neighborhood landmark.

The public art landscape, in its broadest sense, is shaped by many people and groups, explained Minneapolis’ public arts administrator Mary Altman, who oversees works on city property. Those include government institutions, neighborhood organizations and businesses. “But often the most surprising and inspiring of these projects are initiated by individual community members and artists,” she said.

An underappreciated art

Two weeks before the sharpening, Ingvoldstad had shaped the 20-foot, 32-inch-diameter stump into a pencil’s cylindrical form. Wearing a Stihl baseball cap and eyeglasses flecked with sawdust, he prepared to cut its hexagonal shape. One lake-walking regular — Ingvoldstad’s doppelganger with his white beard and hair — paused to comment: “It looks like you’re almost to the part where they say, ‘Pencils down,’ ” he quipped.

Ingvoldstad, who lives outside Northfield, has made a career out of sculpting wood with modern tools. (His barn-turned-studio contains more than 20 chainsaws.) He mostly does custom, site-specific pieces and has differentiated himself through large-scale works reaching more than 20 feet high.

Chainsaw sculpting, Ingvoldstad explained, is a much-maligned genre, often associated with kitsch. But being able to coax an eagle from a stump in a couple of hours — no problem for a competitive speed carver such as Ingvoldstad — helps pay the bills. And while those small projects, as well as the carving demos, may not be glamorous, they keep his skills sharp.

Power tools make for efficient sculpting, Ingvoldstad said, and they’re embraced by classically trained European carvers. He believes chainsaw sculpture is poised to get its due, following the path of graffiti’s recent acceptance into the fine-art world.

While Ingvoldstad has carved his share of wooden bears and garden gnomes, he’s also drawn out the attention of a Connecticut hedge funder, who flew for a commission. In Minnesota, Ingvoldstad is perhaps best known for his intricate carvings on the Vikings’ Skol drum. You name it, he’s probably carved it, including an enormous wooden bowl used for a Super Bowl stunt that involved a social-media star bathing in chili.

Interaction and connection

When designing the LOTI Pencil, Ingvoldstad had to consider how it would be seen from the home’s entrance as well as the road. But he focused on the perspective of those passing by on the walking and biking paths.

“It’s important that the homeowner gets their view,” he said. “But in this case, the provenance of the sculpture is that it’s for the people in the community.” Since the pencil’s form is so minimal, Ingvoldstad positioned it at a jaunty angle to add tension and drama.

Higgins initially talked to a few other artists about the project, who suggested cutting the trunk and fabricating the pencil in a studio. But sculpting the piece on-site felt important, even though it posed a greater challenge, between working on scaffolding and the constant measuring required to keep the form true.

Ingvoldstad’s approach to the sculpture is to capture the essence of a pencil, versus replicating the object precisely. Having his hand-cuts visible, he noted, helps make a human connection between artist and viewer. “The more you put into something, the more people respond, because it’s an actual real thing between humans,” he said.

Buck’s social-media posts, written in the voice of the pencil, add to the artwork’s interactive appeal. (Sample lotipencil Instagram post: “I feel like I’m betraying myself a bit here. I’m a pencil, why am I relaying my thoughts in a digital medium?”)

“He wishes Paul Bunyan would return to Minnesota so that someone could actually use him for what he is meant to do,” Buck joked of the pencil.

The pencil’s personality matches Higgins’ view of the sculpture, as a blend of seriousness and whimsy.

“We want the project to be well executed and have legitimate artistic value,” he explained. “On the other hand, we are doing this with a wink and a smile.”

LOTI Pencil Sharpening
When: June 4, 2-4 pm
Onde: 2217 E. Lake of the Isles Pkwy., Mpls.
What: Artisan pencil sharpener David Rees will shape the sculpture’s tip before Curtis Ingvoldstad does the official reveal. The event will include live music, an ice cream truck, pencil trivia and souvenir pencil giveaways.
Cost: Free.

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