Home & Design September 11, 2008
Doors
as windows to one’s personality

“I see a red door and I want it painted black,” sang Mick Jagger, seemingly relating to a time when The Rolling Stones looked at all things colorful and could see only darkness. Your mood, your mantra, your bent, your passion, your door says so much about those behind it without uttering a single word. Here are some of the craftsmen who help reveal your story to the world without making a sound.


Jack Burgess lets the chips fall where they may. . .

 

Then he stands back and admires his work. The rams’ heads, the trout, exotic birds . . . they all emerge from beneath those wood chips.

“At the end of the day I’m standing in 70,000 to 80,000 chips—some no bigger than a splinter,” says the Ketchum artist. “I love working with wood.”
Burgess, a resident of Ketchum for more than 30 years, carves everything from human figures to trout to coffee table legs featuring life-sized heads of bighorn rams. But some of the largest pieces in his portfolio feature carved wooden doors that stage the entry to his clients’ homes.

Burgess carved a pair of oversized doors with three swans on each door in a composition butterflied up the middle. Another door features an aspen bent by years of heavy snow. Still others include complex African motifs—one with exotic birds a client had seen while on an African safari.

“You want a showpiece—a work of art—not just a door,” he says. “The entry to a home sets the stage for your home and your sense of place. It’s the first thing someone sees when he or she walks up to your house. It’s the first thing they touch upon entering your home.”

The first step in creating a door is considering the motif and composing a design, which can take up to a week, since Burgess rarely goes with the first design that comes to mind.

One homeowner, for instance, wanted something indigenous to this area, so Burgess came up with a design reflecting the beadwork displayed on Shoshoni Indian moccasins and Indian blankets.

In another case, Burgess wanted something graceful, yet tied to nature. So he studied images of dancers and then carved a bristle cone pine tree twisting in the wind reminiscent of a dancer with her arms held gracefully in the air.

“You can go anywhere in your head and imagination, and I like that,” says Burgess.

Burgess carves his doors from basswood, which he says is a reliably stable wood. Known as linden wood in Europe and lime wood in Britain, it’s less apt to crack or warp, it sports few knots and it readily accepts stains and dyes.

Burgess creates his designs using Photoshop on a computer. He then enlarges the image to full scale, printing it on vellum to transfer it to the surface of the door.

He then removes the area around the image, leaving a raised image that he hand carves from a selection of 200 “very sharp” chisels and gouges ranging in size from inch-wide blades to tools the size of dental picks.

Burgess’ affinity for detail comes in part from the premed anatomy classes he took in college at California State University in Sacramento. He switched to art and printing design only after he tired of spending hours and hours in lab learning to identify microscopic cells.

It was on a trip through Europe at age 29 that he discovered his true calling.

He was walking through a German village when he spotted several carved wooden figures in a store window. The store was closed, but he knocked on the door and convinced the shopkeeper through sign language that he had to meet the carvers.

The shopkeeper pointed to his watch, telling him to return at six in the morning and then took him to an atelier on a mountainside where he got to observe a master carver and his five apprentices at work.

As Burgess sat listening to them tapping their mallets in time to the classical music that was playing, he knew he had to be one of them.

“I like the focus, the fact that every movement has to be precise,” he says. “Once you remove a sliver, you can’t replace it. It’s not like clay, where you can take away and add back.”

Burgess returned home to Ketchum where he had been building log homes and immediately set about teaching himself to carve. Now he spends endless hours shaping and chiseling detail—all in search of an exceptional door.

“At the end of the day you know you’ve been working,” he says. “And it’s very satisfying.” >>>

 

 
 
Saw door, was inspired. Now, Diana Fassino saws doors and inspires Awe.

 

When Dick and Diana Fassino built their Sun Valley home in 1993, Diana thought it would be fun to carve the front door.
Never mind that she was a newcomer to the world of carving.

Soon, her big heavy basswood door featured Adam and Eve standing under an apple tree, a bear positioned to give Adam just the right touch of modesty. A moose, bison, mountain goat, deer, raccoon, and other animals completed the intricate relief.

“I knew what I wanted to put on it because I believed we had come to live in the Garden of Eden,” she says. “I wanted to feature all the creatures in the Wood River Valley in it.”

It didn’t stop there, though. When others saw her door, they wanted a door of their own. And today, Fassino’s carved doors, which celebrate nature and wild animals, can be seen from Bellevue to Sun Valley and even around the world as their owners have moved on, taking their doors with them.
Fassino, who grew up near Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest in England, started her foray into wood carving with a totem pole.

“I saw Glenn Carter’s carousel animals and I said, ‘Gosh, I’d love to do this.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you?’ ”

Carter is a successful wood sculptor who lived in the Valley for a time, during which his studios produced more than 3,000 animal bar stools for Rainforest Cafés, among other artwork. The two established a mutually helpful relationship. Diana drew designs for Carter and he showed her how to wield a chainsaw, grinders, sanders and other big power tools—an intimidating pursuit for an artist used to working with a pen and paintbrush.

“They were all big and heavy, terrifying, really,” recalls Fassino.

Nevertheless, when her husband asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she replied simply, “A chainsaw.”
“He called me ‘the chainsaw madam,’” she adds.

Diana put the chainsaw to work, carving lamp stands that boasted bears climbing up them and a 15-by-5-foot relief of horses for a client’s wall. She also carved out two 200-pound wooden waving mannequins that she dubbed “sun dancers” and placed near her driveway on Elkhorn Road, clothing them for years in wedding dresses and ski togs, according to the seasons.

And, then, there were the doors.

“I transferred my first design onto a door and said, ‘I don’t know where to begin.’ Glenn told me, ‘Well, you just begin,’” Diana recalls. “He said: ‘You have an image. You’ve got to cut the wood back until you find it.’ There was a bit of philosophy involved, really.”

Some of Fassino’s doors show a touch of humor—one, for instance, features a bear climbing a tree. Way up in the branches, you can see the boot of the cowboy making his way up the tree as fast as he can.

Another features a cowboy ready to pull his Colt .45 amidst a plethora of cacti.

In one case, she incorporated real sticks and twigs into a door, creating an illusion of a tree.

And an 8-by-8-foot door that she created for Pat and Patti Carter’s East Fork home features three stallions galloping across three panels of desert with mountains in the background and cactus in the foreground.

The Carters liked it so well they even had Fassino repeat the scene inside so they could see it from their great room.

“I never liked stone but I love the smell of wood, the touch of wood,” Fassino says. “It’s alive—it responds to you. And it’s awful fun.”
It’s backbreaking, too, Fassino found out, especially since she uses power tools, rather than hammer and chisel

“I spent a month on the Carters’ door and my arms ached, my back ached, my fingers ached. Carving is very hard physical work—and a little frightening because of the tools. But Glenn used to say, ‘You stay frightened of them. If not, you’ll cut your foot off.’ ”

Despite the physical toil the work took, Fassino would have happily continued to carve her doors. But Glenn Carter moved away, taking his tools with him.

And so Fassino turned to making sculptures out of papier-mâché.

“You don’t need tools for papier-mâché,” she says. “Just ‘recycle—reuse’ some newspapers, some paste and a dish of water.” >>>

 

 

 

A surfing habit begat a career on land. Vance Hanawalt found love on another kind of board.

 

Vance Hanawalt relishes every opportunity he gets to create a door.

“Think how many doors we go through every day! The door to your entryway should define the style of the home inside. It should tell a little bit about who you are,” he says.

Hanawalt’s own entryway to his home in Croy Canyon reflects that. The door is a double one, with inlaid mahogany and a Chinese yin and yang carved in the center. Glass allows him to look out onto the mountains beyond.

The door introduces what Hanawalt terms a “banzai cowboy”-style house—a home that features a mix of Asian and Western finish work.

“A door doesn’t have to be extremely fancy. But it’s fun to add some glass or different metals,” says Hanawalt, who often uses Ketchum artist Jacques Bordeleau’s colorful abstract glasswork in his doors.

Hanawalt, who grew up in Malibu, California, graduated from California State-Fullerton with a geology major and not a clue about what he was going to do with his life.

So he got a job as a laborer building Charthouse restaurants in resort communities like Aspen and Sun Valley’s Elkhorn to support his surfing habit.
He realized after one job that his heart lay in woodworking.

“I liked being able to stand back and know I had done something real—not something imaginary or something on paper,” he says.

Hanawalt has never had a formal apprenticeship—he’s just learned by observing others and experimenting on his own—a strength that came in handy when he was asked to build a pagoda to house the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan prayer wheel for the Sawtooth Botanical Garden in just 13 days. He builds one-of-a-kind doors, using mortise and tenon joinery to insert one piece of wood into the cavity of the other, much like a jigsaw puzzle.

He laminates or glues the boards he mills out of rough-sawn lumber, flat sands them, and then he sculpts and carves arches and other raised features on them.

His doors frame the entrance for many homes in the Wood River Valley; he’s even flown a couple of them into the remote backcountry of the Bitterroot Mountains for the Selway Lodge.

Hanawalt loves to use recycled wood when he can, whether it be 100-year-old white oak from an Amish barn in Pennsylvania or black walnut from an old shed in Massachusetts.

“A hundred and fifty years ago they built everything out of hardwood. Wood that old takes on a different character. It assumes an air of antiquity, the grains become more interesting—it’s like an old guitar that gets better with age,” he says.
Hanawalt prepares the recycled wood by scraping off the veneer so it looks like rough barn wood. Then he planes it to bring out the grain.

Sometimes the wood is pockmarked with nail holes, which heightens interest, he says. Termite and wormholes add to the charm as well.

You never know where a door might start, he notes. One client had a piece of glass and wanted to build the door around that.

“The key thing with a door is, it needs to be strong because it’s going to get used a lot. It needs good hinges and hardware for the same reason,” he says.

The Wood River Valley’s penchant for good craftsmanship has enabled Hanawalt to be creative and work on projects he never could have done elsewhere, he says.

 

He’s placed some of his doors and dining room tables in local gallery exhibitions and he wants to do more of that.

“My goal is to make truly creative pieces I can show in a gallery,” he says. “As I head into my 60s, I look forward to the opportunity to do more creative work without having to worry about the almighty dollar.”

Karen Bossick is a former Idaho Statesman reporter who now writes for the Wood River Journal. If she could handpick a door, it would somehow capture the incomparable beauty of the Boulder Mountains, which haunt her every time she skis or hikes past.

 

 

This article appears in the Fall 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.