You never know when inspiration will hit. For Len Kaminski, sous chef with Cura Hospitality at Sherwood Oaks in Cranberry Township, Pa., that moment was during a Boy Scout trip with his son. The troop was working on carving neckerchief slides out of wood. Most of the slides were fish, birds or leaves, but one—an American Indian face—so “enthralled” Kaminski that he’s been carving Native Americans from wood ever since.
“In the early ‘90s I was on a camping trip with my son. One of the activities was wood carving, so there were a lot of men there who were whittlers. They assisted the boys in attaining merit badges by making neckerchief slides. There was one man who did a face of an Indian. I was enthralled by this. I proceeded to slowly take up this whittling to help other Scouts who didn’t attend that function so they could get their merit badge.
I joined the local wood carving club, Chisels and Chips. I advanced and now I study with professional wood carving sculptors. Eighty-five percent of my carvings are American Indians. I am taking a class this year from one of the foremost instructors in the country on teaching people to carve the female face.
I do between 80 and 100 sculptures a year. I carve seven days a week. I find time every day, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning or the wee hours of the night, but I have to do that every day. The secret is practice.
I sell the sculptures. When the Council of Three Rivers American Indians have their powwow the vendors are American Indians showing American Indian art. The elders got together after seeing my work and said that if I had a sign stating that I wasn’t an American Indian selling American Indian art that I could come. For the past four years they’ve invited me to attend. Usually that’s my biggest time of the year. Sometimes I have eight to 15 hours in one piece, so it takes me a good many months to acquire a suitable collection to sell.
I do two types of pieces. One is a wall hanging. It’s made out of cottonwood tree bark. The bark is three to five inches thick and four to seven inches wide. It reminds you almost of cork when you put your chisel in it. Those pieces are generally front view of Indians. A lot are Mohawk style and Plains Indian, in full headdress. Those are mostly the ones I sell at the powwow.
The other is made out of butternut, also known as white walnut. These are 3-D human-like carvings in the round. These pieces I’ve [entered] in competitions in the realistic human sculpture category.
When I’m going to do a piece in competition from butternut, I prepare for a week researching books. There is a man named Edward Curtis who photographed the American Indians. These are like the only authentic photographs of American Indians. I do a lot of research of his photographs because when you are carving for competition, it has to be historically accurate and anatomically correct. Let’s say I have three actual photographs of American Indians and I have pictures of three sculptures that I found in a magazine or in a museum. As I start to carve I look at all of the photos for factors of realism and correct anatomy. I blend those six pictures into something that is my own creation. I never copy something that is someone else’s work. Sometimes I use clay sculpture to help me visualize or understand how to carve something like the regalia or jewelry.”