An Artist in Our Midst

By Judy Silk
Palisades News Contributor

Our local Starbucks on Sunset attracts a slew of regulars throughout the day. You never know who you might see. On a recent morning, Michael Wade had set out some carving tools at an outdoor table and he seemed to be whittling a long stick of wood.

Wade was carving a walking stick for his grandsons, Harrison (5) and Franklin (3), who live in the Palisades with their parents, Gillian and Ian Wade. Michael, 67, drives up regularly from his home in Buena Park where he lives with his wife of 43 years, Carol. He also carves walking sticks for his granddaughter Emma (3), who lives with her father, Eric Wade, in Mission Viejo. The walking stick Wade was sculpting is not your typical smoothed out, plain wood plank.

He had a finished piece with him, an intricate carving that told a whole story: “Life in a Vertical Village.” It had rooms in it. The top of the stick had a living room with a couch, and family members. Everything was carved out of the same piece of madrone laurel. Nothing was carved outside of the original piece and glued in. The kitchen scene at the bottom of the 3-foot stick even had a dog stealing food off the counter. Between those two were a bathroom, and a bedroom. Connecting the rooms, whittled around the round edges of the stick, was a circular staircase. A whole life was revealed in this stick.

Michael Wade is a master carver.
Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Wade started his carving career when he was a corrections officer assigned to death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary. “The atmosphere was so toxic,” he said, “I started whittling with a Swiss Army Knife as a distraction.” From this an artist was carved as well. “My sister sent me a branch of diamond willow, as a joke, from her home in Alaska. I carved my first stick. It turned out so well, I sent it back to her as a Christmas gift.” He’s been carving ever since.

The stick he carved for his granddaughter Emma was a dollhouse, with a circular staircase and removable wooden dolls, and, of course, lots of rooms. He has carved a whole amusement park for his grandson Harrison; complete with a turning Ferris wheel with members of his family carved into the individual gondolas, and a merry-go-round with whimsical figures carrying people as it turns.

Wade uses simple hand tools. The only power tool he ever uses is when he first saws a branch off a tree. “It is legal to cut a branch from a tree in national forests, but you can’t take a fallen branch” he said. “The branch is part of the ecosystem.” He uses manzanita, oak, madrone laurel and knotty pine. The piece he carved for Harrison came right off an oak in their Palisades backyard.

This might seem like dangerous work, and Wade admits that a part of his DNA ends up in every piece. The worst mishap he’s had in his 40 years of carving was a sliced tendon. But he was back carving within a day. Once he gets an idea, and the wood and tools in his hands, he works steadily for one or two months, only taking time out to teach first-aid.

He’s hoping that someday his art will find a place in a museum: the Smithsonian would be just right. In the meantime, he keeps carving these one-of-a-kind, extraordinary masterpieces every couple of months.

For more information, visit thewadeswood.com.

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