New “Spoonbridge and Cherry” Pencil Sculpture for Lake of the Isles

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As spring arrives at Lake of the Islands in Minneapolis, the screeching of power tools mixes with the chirping of birds during home improvement season. And for the past month, Curtis Ingvoldstad’s chainsaw has joined the cacophony, as the sculptor transforms a felled oak trunk into an enormous No. 2 pencil.

As Ingvoldstad carved, owner 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 chosen, the site explains, because it is an essential tool for carpenters and CEOs, full of potential for drawing, drifting and creating.

“In these times of great pride and haughtiness, the pencil is an enduring symbol of humility and epistemic rigor,” Higgins and Buck wrote. “Something in pencil is something we are unsure of – something that requires deeper thought, illumination and exploration.”

Rarely do private owners exhibit their art as if it were civic amenity. But Higgins and his wife, Amy, hope the pencil will become a pop art icon in the vein of Walker’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry.”

They invite the public to the shaping of the sculpture on June 4 – with professional pencil sharpener David Rees (a real person who looks a lot like a “Portlandia” character) on a plane from New York.

The quasi-public attraction, created as much for the enjoyment of the community as for its owners, is likely to draw more visitors to the toned, hidden enclave than its privacy-seeking residents are accustomed to. Or, as civic agitator @WedgeLive tweeted, “Here’s a story that will irritate nearby mansion owners.”

The pencil was born, in a way, one morning in June 2017, when the sky turned eerily green and a fierce wind picked up. Although the storm only lasted a few minutes, Higgins recalls, the damage was shocking: The upper canopy of a massive 180-year-old oak tree in his lawn was mowed right away.

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

After cleaning the branches, the Higgins family couldn’t bring themselves to cut the trunk. They began to consider giving it new life as a landmark of the artwork district.

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

An underrated art

Two weeks before sharpening, Ingvoldstad had shaped the 20-foot, 32-inch-diameter stump into the cylindrical shape of a pencil. Wearing a Stihl baseball cap and sawdust speckled glasses, he prepares to cut out his hexagonal shape. A regular on the lake walk – the Ingvoldstad look-alike with his beard and white hair – stopped to comment: ‘Looks like you’re almost when they say ‘Pencils down'”, a- he joked.

Ingvoldstad, who lives outside Northfield, has made a career of carving wood with modern tools. (His barn-turned-studio contains more than 20 chainsaws.) He primarily makes custom, site-specific pieces and has differentiated himself with large-scale works reaching over 20 feet tall.

Chainsaw carving, Ingvoldstad explained, is a much maligned genre, often associated with kitsch. But being able to coax an eagle out of a stump in a matter of hours – no problem for a competitive speed carver like Ingvoldstad – helps pay the bills. And while those little projects, as well as the sculpting demos, might not be glamorous, they keep her skills sharp.

Power tools allow for efficient carving, Ingvoldstad said, and they are embraced by classically trained European sculptors. He believes chainsaw carving is about to get its due, following the path of graffiti’s recent acceptance into the fine art world.

While Ingvoldstad carved his share of wooden bears and garden gnomes, he also caught the eye of a Connecticut backer, who flew him for a commission. In Minnesota, Ingvoldstad is perhaps best known for its intricate Viking Skol drum carvings. You name it, he probably carved it, including a huge wooden bowl used for a Super Bowl stunt that involved a social media star bathing in chili peppers.

Interaction and connection

When designing the LOTI pencil, Ingvoldstad had to consider how it would be seen from the entrance to the house as well as from the road. But he focused on the perspective of passers-by on the walking and biking trails.

“It’s important for the owner to have their opinion,” he said. “But in this case, the provenance of the sculpture is that it’s for people in the community.” Since the shape of the pencil is so minimal, Ingvoldstad positioned it at a casual angle to add tension and drama.

Higgins first spoke to a few other artists on the project, who suggested cutting the trunk and making the pencil in a studio. But sculpting the piece in place seemed important, if more of a challenge, between working on the scaffolding and the constant measurements needed to keep the shape true.

Ingvoldstad’s approach to sculpture is to capture the essence of a pencil, rather than to reproduce the object with precision. Having his hand cuts visible, he noted, helps establish a human connection between artist and viewer. “The more you invest in something, the more people respond, because it’s a real human thing,” he said.

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

“He wants Paul Bunyan back in Minnesota so somebody can actually use him for what he’s supposed to do,” Buck joked of the pencil.

The personality of the pencil corresponds to Higgins’ vision of sculpture, as a mixture of seriousness and fantasy.

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

LOTI pencil sharpener
When: June 4, 2-4 p.m.
Where: 2217 E. Lake of the Isles Pkwy., Mpls.
What: Handcrafted pencil sharpener David Rees will shape the tip of the sculpture before Curtis Ingvoldstad makes the official reveal. The event will feature live music, an ice cream truck, crayon quizzes and souvenir crayon giveaways.
Cost: Free.

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