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Chiappetta expresses his imagination with wood

Wood carver Hank Chiappetta stands among a selection of his wood carvings on Tuesday, in the Chase Gallery. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Wood carver Hank Chiappetta stands among a selection of his wood carvings on Tuesday, in the Chase Gallery. (Tyler Tjomsland)

At the Earth Day celebration in Riverfront Park last month, Hank Chiappetta, holding an intricately carved staff, stood under the awning of the Occupy Spokane booth. He was there to answer questions about the grass-roots movement, but there was one question he heard repeatedly:

“Where did you get that walking stick?”

When he answers that he carved it, they ask a few more questions and then move on. “I’ve been offered $50 for my sticks,” he said, “The wood alone cost me more than that.”

Chiappetta is a wood carver and a bit of a radical; questioning authority and voicing his opinions in an attempt to cause change in the art scene as well as the political, social and economic arenas. Although he is often disheartened, he keeps doing what he’s doing because, he said, he has to do something. “It’s how I express myself.”

Chiappetta, 61, spent his early years in California. He never really knew his parents and was raised in the foster care system. He took off at 17, traveling all over the Western states and working odd jobs. Eventually, he landed in Spokane. In 1992, he was injured when his car was hit by a car that was, minutes earlier, being chased by police. He has had his share of troubles and suffers from chronic pain but he continues to voice his opinions, only now, much of his energy is focused on making art.

For the past 15 years or so, Chiappetta has been wielding a mallet and a chisel, fine-tuning his skills as a carver. Working only with hard and strong woods like walnut, chestnut, hard rock maple and black locust, he creates pieces meant to last, including totems, accent tables, sculptures, and mantles. Each piece is covered in fluid imagery that comes from his dreams or random thoughts.

“I have a lot of bizarre ideas,” he said, “and I can’t just stop at a head on the end of a stick.”

His pieces sport humanlike figures – including what he calls the Northwest American tree elf – animals, birds in flight, landscapes, nests, bunches of grapes, and abstract designs that flow organically. His work, a mix of surrealism and folk art, is reminiscent of a world without machines, where everything has a purpose and the imagination rules.

Leaning on his walking stick, Chiappetta ponders the state of things. He hopes to educate people in regards to things that can be changed for the better. He plans on working on larger-scale pieces and collaborating with other artists. He envisions a future where his city is more people- and art-friendly.

“Less parking lots and more art would be good,” he said, “and if I make some sales, that would be good too.”