Article by Nancy Ward
Local Artists – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
“I’ll carve you a wooden leg,” is the way Jack Portice tells the story of his offer to a friend who’d just lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. That was back in 1979 when Portice had a custom motorcycle shop in Aurora, Colorado, where the artist inside him came out in the choppers he designed and built.
Portice never got the leg completed, and the eagle plaque he tried to carve for the friend looked more like a chicken, he admits, but he kept practicing with the wood-carving set his wife, Vicki, had given him. The friend finally got a cane with an eagle carved on it.
And Portice kept dreaming — he desperately wanted to get out of the city, and into the mountains. As soon as he started carving, “I knew right away I liked carving better than what I was doing.”
So how did he get to Como? And how did he get to be a full-time professional wood carver?
“That’s another story,” he says. (Portice has a story for every subject, and every question asked.)
Rewind to 1984, the year that changed his life.
Portice simply reached into his wallet and invested one dollar to make his dream come true — freedom, happiness, the perfect life. He plunked down the dollar and walked away a Fairy Tale winner, a $10,000 lottery winner; which yielded $7,900 after taxes.
Six thousand dollars bought Jack and his wife, Vicki, a house in Como, the one-time coal-mining town and narrow-gauge railroad center where the old roundhouse still stands, north of Fairplay.
Remaining cash bought shop equipment — a vice, a saw, carving knives and chisels and gouges, each for a specific purpose. He’s got about 50 hand-carving tools now which he keeps “very sharp” at all times, and a seldom-used Dremel.
Portice advises carvers to hold their wood in a vice at all times. That frees both hands for carving. One is the power and one is the brake, he explains.
The couple made the big move to Como in 1985, using one room of their mountain home for a gallery to display and sell Jack’s carvings.
Of medium height, stocky and bearded, Portice looks like he’s been a mountain man forever. He’s adopted mountain man clothes and lifestyle, often wearing buckskin leggings and shirt with a fur cap, especially at the many Mountain Man Rendezvous he attends. But being good business operators, the couple has also incorporated necessary modern apparatus, including a website on the Internet.
BRISTLECONE PINE is Jack’s wood of choice. Bristlecone complements the sweeping, flowing form that is the Portice style. It’s found “up the canyon about eight miles, clear up to timberline, about 11-12,000 feet.”
Bristlecone provides the special effects needed for Portice’s realistic portrayals of mountain men, Indians and wildlife. The natural flow of the wood, roots or limbs, bent and gnarled and twisted, is incorporated in facial features, hair, beards, fur, feathers and wings. Imperfections in the wood are used to benefit the aesthetic value of the finished piece. Unlike driftwood, his wood selections have never been saturated with water, but are from lightning-killed trees in which the lightning or fire has heated the pitch creating special color and texture.
Portice says Bristlecone pines are some of the oldest living vegetation. He may use an entire section of wood found in the mountains for one carving, or he may cut it into more than one piece.
“There are two ways to approach carving,” he says. “You can get an idea in your head and look for the appropriate piece of wood. Or you can pick up the wood and let it take you where it will — that’s the most fun.” One root combination he picked up immediately brought the vision of the head, tail and wings of a dragon. It became “Bad Day for a Knight,” a two-week project.
And every day from the time he first picked up a knife, Portice has practiced — practiced seeing what’s in the wood, and what can be created. He’s practiced carving and chiseling and gouging. He’s practiced to keep proficient at sealing, sanding, staining, and polishing.
His hands and eyes understand the wood, and help each piece tell its own story. He reads and researches, and takes time to “hear” and “feel” the story within the wood. He takes time to think and dream and imagine, until he knows the history and soul of his combination fictional/ non-fictional creation before he begins to carve.
Portice does relief carving and “in-the-round” pieces carved on every side of the wood. All of his compositions tell a story.
“Mountain Thunder,” carved in a stump, depicts the full bust of an aged Indian wearing a buffalo robe. From the hair on the back of the Indian’s head emerges a thundering buffalo herd; buffalo being all important to the Indian way of life. The carving took a month. It sold for $4,000.
“Hollow Horn Bear’s Vision Quest,” a complicated creation, utilizes every scraggly and blemished piece of an up-ended stump and its roots, challenging the carver’s senses and ability to highlight the wood the best way “imaginable.” The finished piece represents the Indian, during a vision, becoming one with the bear.
The bust features the head of an aged Indian, Hollow Horn Bear, with the body of a bear. The feather emerging from the Indian’s headband turns into a bear’s head at the feather’s tip. The Indian’s staff becomes an eagle’s head with a hollow horn emerging from it, all symbolic of Indian lore and legend. Its creation took nearly four months. It won a Best of Show award and other recognitions.
“Spirit of the High Country” is a mountain man whose cap is a beaver. His beard sweeps into an eagle’s head, representing the freedom the mountain man had. A second scene of the carving is an Indian, with a buffalo flowing from his hair, representing pleasant memories. The middle scene is of the mountains, bear, deer, a stream and a Bristlecone tree. It sold for $2,500.
Of course, there’s the Mountain Man self-portrait bust, plus “Eagle Dancer,” “Story Teller,” and many more, the most expensive being the $4,000 “Set My Spirit Free,” a moving piece of an Indian dying.
PORTICE TURNS OUT 100 to 150 carvings per year, including the small ones that only take a few hours — the fairies, or “Bristlechauns,” as he calls them. Their prices start at $50.
Through the years, Portice has collected a few dozen awards and ribbons from prestigious shows: Best of Show, People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice, Best of the Best from shows at Denver and Colorado Springs, at Wichita and Topeka, Kansas; Tyler, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona.
One more story. He accepted a commission once — and carved three heads, not busts, just heads — of comedian Jerry Van Dyke. They sit atop the player piano in Van Dyke’s soda shop.
Now Portice refuses commissions. He carves exactly what’s in his heart and soul, and what the wood tells him.
His favorite carving? He has lots of them but two stand out. “Once Upon a Bristlecone,” created for the new house he and Vicki are building, is the one he likes best, for now, and “Hollow Horn Bear’s Vision Quest” that sold recently to a movie executive for $3,500. It was hard to part with that one, the artist admits.
Mountain Man Gallery
The Jack Portice Mountain Man Gallery and Como Mammoth Museum opened in 1991, and therein lies another tale. The Fairplay school district had a building it didn’t need, and Portice took it off their hands. It was free if he’d move it. So the couple tore it down, moved the materials from Fairplay to Como, and re-built it near their home, the perfect rustic addition to the community.
Featured there are 20,000-year-old mammoth bones found on Portice property during a geologic survey.
At the gallery he offers many carvings at various prices including a wide variety of “Bristlechauns.” Other than the few shows he does, Portice carvings are available only at the Mountain Man Gallery where Vicki’s work is also offered. She uses an entirely different category of carving; she’s a chip carver. It’s a centuries old technique of decorating jewelry boxes, wooden plates, recipe boxes, and breadboards by chipping out a decorative design. She works mostly in basswood. The Gallery features other primitive artists of the area, Indian artifacts, paintings, clay sculpture and mountain man items. Wood carving tools are available, and copies of the book Portice co-authored in ’91 with fellow carver Gene Bass, Carving Weathered Wood.
Open seven days a week May through September, the gallery schedule the rest of the year is “off and on” and it’s best to call before driving to Como; they try to be closed a few weeks early in the year.
Contact Mountain Man Gallery at P.O. Box 59, Como, Colorado 80432, phone 719-836-2403, web address: http://web.idirect.com/~showcase/portice .
Once a year Portice holds class at the Como Carving Experience put on by the Colorado Carvers’ Club. It will be on June 12, 1999. Carvers from across the country provide free classes and demonstrate various carving styles.
The artist also does his share in his community, recently completing six years as president of the Como Civic Association.
Park County has growing pains, he says. “Ten years ago a business couldn’t make it up here.” Things are different now with more people making the same city to country move he made. There are also several seasonal residents, as well as more tourists. The influx has both good and adverse effects, he acknowledges, but he and the rest of the community try to live with and work through the growing pains. He has no complaints.
Would Jack Portice change what he did with his lottery winnings, if he could?
“No.” His answer is quick. “It was a very wise decision,” he declares. “The worst day here is better than the best day in Denver.”
He plans to complete the new house he and Vicki are building, and just keep doing what he’s doing — enjoying life. And that’s a story he’s sticking to.
Nancy Ward, a former Saguache resident, lives and writes in Cañon City when she’s not observing art and artists in Central Colorado.