Greg Landeis is a woodcarver working amidst contradictions. Despite a lifelong, unrelenting allergy to his medium, he has spent decades carving and producing from his shop, Black Spruce Studios.
Because of his allergy, Landeis said, “it looked like I had been in a boxing match when I came out of the studio,”
The retired City of Soldotna policeman and self-proclaimed romantic was forced to switch from his preferred basswood to cottonwood, which he said actually worked out for the better, “if you can believe it.”
Landeis, a Sterling resident, specializes in realistic depictions of indigenous wildlife. The range of subjects he worked and whittled started out broad, but Landeis narrowed his scope to focus on the native fish that fill Alaska’s streams.
“I want people to look at it and say ‘my god I think I can touch it and it will swim away,’” he said. “It can take a whole day to complete a tail fin because it is so intricate.”
His wife Esther Landeis said her husband has been carving and woodworking as long as she has known him, and his styles have progressed. His pieces are strewn across Central Kenai Peninsula, in the homes of residents and among the displays at local businesses such as Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing in Soldotna.
Landeis and his wife view his interest in complicated, delicate pieces as going against what his wife calls a “burly” physique.
“He used to hand carve cute, little birds,” Esther Landeis said. “He used to build stuff with no tools. He hand-made the cradle for our first child together and a diaper table out of Blue Pine, I think, without any power tools.”
The pieces were sound, and are still floating around in the couple’s home, Esther Landeis said. She has watched his interests jump from colorful boxes, to local fish, to tropical fish to bowls — now that he has a lathe, she said.
Landeis has always been an avid outdoorsman. If he is not fishing or hunting he is in the studio during his free time, according to his wife.
Hundreds of hours have been spent hunched over streams in Girdwood watching fish swim through the lense of a waterproof camera, he said.
Watching every possible flip and twitch and potential movement the different species made in their environment allowed Landeis to translate those details to into his inanimate carvings, he said.
As time goes on, Landeis said he will be spending much more time working on his pieces in his shop, rather than outdoors in the wilderness among the animals that inspire him.
Landeis was forced into a premature retirement from the police force in 1995.
“My leg was severely injured beyond repair while in a violent confrontation with a felon,” Landeis said.
Several surgeries have followed, but Landeis still wears a brace to support his ankle.
“I don’t want this to be a sob story, but the injury is such that it’s just going to get worse and worse,” Landeis said.
Esther Landeis said he will not be wanting for much.
“He wishes he could do that (woodworking) for a living,” Esther Landeis said.
Landeis’s interest began at an early age. He has always enjoyed building with his hands and in high school he learned the basics of woodworking and carving in a shop class.
The two approaches to working with wood are quite opposite to one another, Landeis said. With one the artist is looking at what can be put together to make something, and the other is looking at what needs to be taken away.
Landeis rarely uses the timber represented in the name of his studio, although he said that while Alaska’s iconic black spruce may appear ugly to some, the wood inside it is beautiful.
“It felt good, “ Landeis said. “It just fit.”
Landeis’s brother-in-law, Robin Bogard, supplies the materials that are used at Black Spruce. Between three to five sturdy cottonwood trees from Bogard’s Nikiski property bordering Captain Cook State Park make their way into the studio every year.
Cottonwood is good for carving and his allergic reactions to the wood are minimal.
Bogard said he seeks out the best timber for Landeis. As cottonwoods age, their middles become hollow and the trees become fragile and, he said. In exchange for the vital resource, a few of Landeis’s carvings have made their way into Bogard’s home.
“I find them quite frankly, uncanny and amazing. I am absolutely in aw of their beauty,” Bogard said. “I wouldn’t sell or trade them for anything.”
Bogard said he will sit down with his wife and admire the pieces, which bring back good memories the couple has shared with Landeis.
Landeis donates roughly one piece of artwork per year to local businesses such as Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing in Soldotna, and carves on request. He is currently in the middle of a wooden puzzle that will replace the traditional guest book at his co-worker Mirian Olivo’s wedding. When she made the original inquiry, Olivo said she never expected Landeis to take it and run.
“He got really excited about it,” Olivo said. “It keeps getting more special.”
Landeis has since added flower borders, and come up with the idea to send the puzzle pieces off with Olivo’s guests, who could write their thoughts on the fragments and return them later to fit once again in the whole puzzle.
“What guy does that, you know? He’s a hopeless romantic,” Olivo said. “You tell him you want a box then he comes up with that?”
Landeis’ passion and talent are self-taught. The most outside influence he received was from another local carver years ago who convinced him to make the switch from using an ax to crafting with power tools.
While Landeis believes his art would be competitive internationally, he doesn’t try to prove it, partially because of his short attention span. It takes roughly three months to complete an average piece, he said.
“It might take you a whole year to complete a piece for competition,” Landeis said. “I know it sounds corny, but I am not really into the competition thing.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org