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Calder Scupture Grows in Arlington

An estimated few days work turned into a six-month project for Chesapeake artisan Jim Calder.

When Ira Goodsaid cut down a 50-foot tree in his North Arlington yard, he wasn’t making an artistic statement; he was trying to upgrade his cable television.

Hoping to install a satellite dish, Goodsaid found his desire, and a decent signal, blocked by the chestnut-oak in his yard. Rather than remove the tree entirely, Goodsaid — a trademark attorney and art aficionado — kept the 15-foot trunk for what he hoped would be a sculpture.

Using a Google search, Goodsaid found Jim Calder, an award-winning chainsaw artist from Chesapeake and the self-proclaimed “Wizard of Wood.” Goodsaid was impressed with Calder’s work and his bloodlines: Calder’s great-uncle Alexander was the famous sculptor and inventor of the mobile whose work hangs in the National Gallery of Art. Shortly after meeting, Goodsaid and Calder signed a contract for $5,400. Calder was to stay at Goodsaid’s home in the Williamsburg neighborhood until the carving was complete; a length of time he estimated to be no more than five days. That was in May.

Now, Calder, 58, is putting the final touches on “Ascent,” a three-dimensional relief of woodland creatures he started six months ago. On a bright morning in November, Calder describes his experience with “Ascent” as anything but sunny.

“If anything could have ever gone wrong, it went wrong with this carving,” says Calder. “It feels like somebody had this big, bad carving cloud over my head.”

CALDER'S MISFORTUNES began in March when his mother died. His father has severe dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and Calder wanted him cared for round-the-clock. His brothers balked, saying a regular nursing home would do. A custody battle ensued and, in the end, Calder got his wish, although not exactly how he’d planned.

“I had to move in with my father, 24-hours a days, because he can’t do things for himself,” says Calder. “He built his house when he was 19-years-old and there’s times when he doesn’t even know where the bathroom is.”

Commuting from his father’s Baltimore home, Calder managed to find trouble in the most mundane of activities. One day, while picking up a pile of leaves, Calder accidentally grabbed a hornet’s nest, suffering over 400 stings covering his face, neck, and arms.

“It looked like someone had shot me with a shotgun,” says Calder. “To be real honest, I thought I was going to die.”

Having completed over a thousand sculptures, mostly outdoors, Calder was hardly surprised by the hornet attack. He was caught off-guard, however, a month later when his father, attempting to punch a table, hit Calder’s hand instead, breaking a bone and leaving the sculptor wondering if he’d ever carve again.

TODAY, AS HE CHIPS away at “Ascent,” it is clear Calder healed; weeks in a cast and therapy made sure of that. But now that the sculpture is nearly complete, Calder is not interested in dwelling on the past. He’d rather give credit to the people who supported him through the most difficult commission of his life.

“I honestly cannot tell you enough about Ira,” said Calder about the man who’d waited half a year for the piece to be complete. “I think he’s one of the most patient men I’ve ever met in my life. I want to make sure this piece lasts him a long time.” Even Goodsaid’s neighbor’s made contributions. “They’ve become like buddies to me. They like to come out and watch (the carving) take place. A lady welcomed me back (after the cast was removed) with cookies and milk.”

This reception seemed unlikely when Calder first began carving; Goodsaid’s neighbors were skeptical about his plans and he knew why.

“There’s a giant topless mermaid on Lee Highway that I recall reading was quite controversial,” says Goodsaid. “But I didn’t want to create a brou-ha-ha like that. I wanted something that wouldn’t repulse people.”

If Jim Breiling’s observations are correct, Goodsaid got his wish. Breiling can see the sculpture from his living room and has noticed the effect it has on passer-bys. “It’s a movement stopper,” says Breiling. “People walking their dogs and kids will stop to look at it. It’s a nice departure from the homogeneity of manicured lawns.”

Calder is happy that Goodsaid’s neighbors approve, and even happier that his craftsmanship landed him his next commission in Tacoma Park, MD. Despite all that’s befallen him these past six months, Calder shows no signs of letting his misadventures working on “Ascent” color his carving future. “This guy wants to do a traditional dragon. It’s going to be a little bigger than the piece Ira has and he wants to work along side of me,” says Calder. “Everything will work out perfect.”