In the dawn air of the Colorado high country, Van Martin scours the timberline, looking for branches of dead trees older than history. He looks at the bristlecone pine wood and sees eagles, bears, wolves.
“I have to see it in the wood before I’ll do it,” Martin said of his work. “I have to see the flows and the forms.”
His artistry is to make others see what he sees. He said he doesn’t carve wood into artwork, he brings out the artwork already in the wood. Martin and his wife, Liz, will be one of 298 vendors at the Hillsboro Arts and Crafts Fair and one of 80 new vendors. The couple moved to rural Hillsboro from Centennial, Colorado, earlier this year.
Most of Martin’s work consists of eagles. The gnarled, ancient wood of the bristlecone pine has ideal texture and flow, and he often does very little to change the wood’s shape.
Bristlecones only grow above 10,000 feet. In full bloom they have vibrant burgundy buds and purple cones. The trees have been dated as far back as 5,000 years, making them the oldest trees in the world.
“I’ve always called these guys ‘the elders’ or ‘the old ones,’” Martin said. “And you sit there underneath ’em and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, what all have you seen?’”
The Martins collect wood every summer. The 50 to 60 pieces he creates every year — along with Liz’s gourd basket weaving and pottery — provide them their means. Out of respect for the ancient trees, the Martins only collect wood that has been destroyed by lightning.
The wood’s exterior often forms natural feathering that Martin enunciates with his artistic touch.
The wood, though it may look like driftwood, is solid, heavy, and dense.
“Almost everybody, they connect this with driftwood,” he said. “We get asked a lot, especially from the Midwest, ‘Oh is that driftwood? Did that come out of the river or the creek?’ I say, ‘No, this comes from way up high in the mountain ridges.’”
The trees grow only in the United States, in the Rocky Mountains region. Martin said the affiliation with the country is why the majority of his sculptures are eagles. He enjoys finding pieces in which he can put two eagles, partially because eagles mate for life.
“You can sell eagles anywhere,” he said. Their status as the national bird makes them ideal for sale not only anywhere in America, but anywhere in the world as an American symbol. He has sold sculptures in several different countries.
He said his pieces start at $150 and go up from there, sometimes into the thousands.
The Hillsboro Arts and Crafts fair will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20, in Hillsboro.