Most people think of pecan shells as something to throw away after eating the nut within. For sculptor Ralph Trethewey, however, the material on the outside is far more valuable, and he has carved, quite literally, a career out of those pecan shells. Credited with discovering a form of sculpture unique in the world, the Walla Walla artist creates miniature masterpieces by carving, with rotary power tools and small knives, Lilliputian antlers, which he mounts to small-scale walnut plaques.
“My grandpa raised pecans in Phoenix, AZ,” Trethewey explains. “We would visit there in the winter, and one time when I picked up the shells I noticed the curvature, which is similar to the outer curvature of a mule deer’s antlers. I made a mental connection, and the next step was making the carving.
“It’s kind of nuts, isn’t it?”
Crazy or not, the resulting original and precision works are in the hands of collectors as unique and distinguished as the artworks themselves: Ripley’s Believe it or Not owns a set, as does contemporary Western artist Bev Doolittle.
“I was antler crazy at a young age,” Trethewey says. Raised in the Mojave Desert of California and near the Wasaatch Mountains of Utah, Trethewey grew up listening to the hunting stories of his father, John Trethewey, who once shot a buck with an eight-point rack on one side and twenty on the other.
“Every time I asked him where those antlers were, he simply said, ‘I just left them out in the cedars because we only needed the meat.'”
Trethewey recalls regularly embarrassing his father by asking total strangers where he could find antlers, and while he received some funny looks, he also picked up good tips, following up on them by looking in gas stations, on garages and fence posts, even straining to peek into bars to see antlers.
“It was a healthy addiction for which no support groups existed.”
Perhaps it’s a good thing no support group existed, because the result was that Trethewey directed his energy, and his passion for antlers, to art, cultivating what he considers a God-given talent for woodcarving into a career as a professional artist which he has been pursuing since 1973.
“I began carving as a boy and got affirmation for my first efforts,” Trethewey remembers. “I turned to Utah’s aspen trees and would carve deer from these which sold for $25.”
In addition to miniature antlers made from pecan shells, Trethewey carves full sized antlers in wood, which he reproduces in limited edition cast polymer. He also creates original wood carvings of birds and other wildlife, as well as limited edition bronze sculptures. The next time you’re in downtown Walla Walla, walk to the southeast corner of Main and Third Streets to enjoy The Thinker, a whimsical frog based upon the iconic work of Auguste Rodin.
The various homes for Trethewey’s works are as varied and eclectic as the works themselves, and along with municipal public art and a presence at Ripley’s, Trethewey’s creations — from his realistic carved birds to his signature “Wyoming Wonder” World Record Antler sculptures — have been purchased by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, musician Hank Williams Jr., and former governor of Oregon Barbara Roberts.
Trethewey has received numerous First Place, Best in Show, and People’s Choice awards in various group exhibitions, and he garnered Best of Show at the 17th Annual American National Miniature Show in 1992. His Thinker sculpture received the Walla Walla Architectural Award. To this point, he has produced 47 limited edition sculptures, many of which are sold out.
“The statements I make (with my art) are basically a love of nature and an attempt to duplicate/interpret realistically its beauty,” Trethewey says.
“Life is all about learning. It postpones the onset of Alzheimer’s.
“In summary, I love what I get to do!”
Trethewey’s many and varied artworks are on display at Wenaha Gallery’s Art Event in his honor, which runs from April 28 – May 17 at the downtown historic gallery, 219 East Main, Dayton, WA. Contact the gallery by phone at 800.755.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wenaha Gallery, located in historic downtown Dayton, Washington, is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists. Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton; phone 509.382.2124; e-mail email@example.com. Gallery Website: www.wenaha.com
Read more about Art Event, our celebration of Pacific Northwest Artists, here.
This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.