Creswell’s Len Zeoli sits with some of his ”ancestor” sculptures in his garage woodshop. ERIN TIERNEY/THE CRESWELL CHRONICLE
That’s the Len Zeoli recipe for life.
He’s a wood sculptor whose art is alive to him. He and his wife, Christie, moved to Creswell from Uniontown, Wash., last year, along with their five cats.
He crafts a variety of sculptures – furniture, public displays and abstract pieces – all of which speak to the strength of our ancestors, to the intricacies of the celestial world, to the power of personal enlightenment.
Some of his work will be on display at the Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette St., Eugene, during the Eugene Biennial from July 25 through Aug. 25.
Zeoli has always appreciated the natural beauty and textures of wood. Dating back to boyhood, he would carve and construct his own toys from materials salvaged from his father’s woodpile or from the New England woods where he grew up.
That’s how Zeoli was first introduced to the medium, though the history of wood carving begins at the beginning. Since the dawn of recorded history, wood has been appreciated and utilized for its natural allure, accessibility and affordability.
Take the sculpture, ”Shigir Idol,” for instance. It is the oldest known wood sculpture in the world, crafted during the Mesolithic period shortly after the end of the last Ice Age. The wood is 11,500 years old and depicts a flat body, human faces, hands and geometrical motifs like zigzag lines.
Though wood sculpting certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel, each piece comes with its own voice and its own energy. Accessing that voice, that energy, is what transforms a block of wood into a piece of art – and that’s just what Zeoli does.
He first tapped into that energy when he owned his own cabinet and furniture business. There, he crafted his own pieces, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago when his work took on a whole new perspective.
One day, after examining a desk he had made, it dawned upon him: ”It just went through my head – I make sculptures,” he realized. ”There’s negative and positive space, there’s three dimensions.”
Zeoli hasn’t stopped sculpting since.
When beginning a project, he first goes to his woodpile – which stacks thousands of feet of material – to find the piece that speaks to him. Zeoli harvests all the wood himself and can remember where nearly every piece originated from.
But he doesn’t impose his own thoughts on the wood. ”What really happens is the idea responds to the material and the material responds to the idea,” he said. ”It’s alive to me.”
For ideas and art to come into fruition, your mind must be still.
”We can only truly see life by going into our own silence,” he said. That’s how he accesses ideas; that’s how ideas are born.
From there, the artistic process is officially underway.
Zeoli can recall one of his initial sculpture ideas. It was for a yard piece, which appeared to have flower buds popping out of the ground.
But like he said, imposing your own ideas on the materials sometimes doesn’t work. The more he got working, the more those little round oval buds turned into people.
By the time this piece was finished, the sculpture served as a metaphor of coming forth, being born and existing in the world.
His work often hones in on lineage, of those who came before us, of celestial bodies and geology. Right now, he is working on a group of pieces called, ”The Mosaic of Ancestral Knowledge,” which depicts figures linked together by slender pieces of wood, arranged, curved and stacked in a way that connects each piece to the next – just as our ancestors link us to our past.
He’s in a more enlightened headspace than most, Zeoli is. He believes life is only possible if there is a positive backdrop and uses his art as a means to project that backdrop all around him.
”Hatred, war, altercations destroy life; it cannot be our foundation,” Zeoli said in his garage workshop, surrounded by his Ancestor projects underway. He has forgone the negativity that often consumes humanity by chiseling, gouging, whittling and constructing his own version of beauty.
”All human history is recorded and accessible,” he said. ”We have to be with our thoughts, with that idea that the Universe supports life and supports us.”
Unlike many forms of art, his sculptures are meant to be touched. He always encourages people to feel his work, to walk around his pieces, to look at them from different perspectives. They’re dynamic, not stagnant, and must be experienced, not viewed.
So how long does it take for him to complete a project?
”Everything has been 40 years in the making,” Zeoli said. ”Everything I do is a compilation and result of what I’ve studied and what I learned to understand. Skill level is built on practice. Think, make mistakes, learn and grow.”
Though Zeoli’s garage will do for now, he’s looking for a place in Creswell to use as his workshop, where he eventually hopes to teach the art of sculpture to locals 18 years and up.
To contact Zeoli, and to check out more of his work online, check out https://lenzeoli.com.