Like most art, the discipline of sculpting or carving is one that certainly must possess a unique ability to imagine something that is not there—yet. For Wendy Lichtensteiger her love of all things wood, virgin wood, milled wood, discarded wood; it all has a story to tell. It is in Lichtensteiger’s hands, directed by her soulful connection to the natural medium, and inspired by the environment that surrounds her, that her narrative takes shape.
Lichtensteiger grew up in New Jersey and studied art in college at Arizona State University; all types of art, “I knew I wanted to be a maker, but I didn’t know which way to go,” she says as she explains that she didn’t carve until the year 2,000. Her father Lance is a woodcarver, with whom she apprenticed for five years. “It’s really my blood, I learned from my Dad, who is also a wildlife carver even though our styles are quite different. My father was my first mentor,” Lichtensteiger says.
Her second mentor was a master. Wick Ahrens is known around the world for his unique, rustic, sentimental renderings of whales, seals and other marine mammals. Based in Vermont, his work garnered a reputation and a following that kept his carved sculptures in high demand. In 2012 as his health was deteriorating, Ahrens contacted Lichtensteiger, a friend and fellow Vermonter, and proposed a scenario where she could assist in his production of whale wall plaques and museum-quality sculptures.
As she reflects on her time spent with Ahrens, it is clear that their relationship was far more meaningful than a helper in a wood shop. “He changed my life,” she recalls. Lichtensteiger continued to carve alongside Ahrens until his retirement when he asked to her to continue his tradition of carving whales in Vermont. Ahrens died a few years ago, but still lives on in Lichtensteiger’s daily life, “I have his dog, an Australian Shepherd named Ambergris that I adopted seven years ago.”
Lichtensteiger’s beautifully and thoughtfully carved wildlife pieces are also unique because of her choice of wood: American Chestnut, a rare species that was once abundant, but virtually became extinct 100 years ago. “My father stumbled upon a length of chestnut that he brought home from a construction job,” she recalls. “It was beautiful. The grain and the feathering contribute to the unique nature of the birds he carved. I have been lucky that a school friend called me a few years ago and told me he had purchased a lake cabin that was completely built with the chestnut. I drove to New Jersey, and picked up the whole load and brought it here to Vermont.” The lumber, as it waits to take shape as a result of Lichtensteiger’s imagination, sits in a 200-year-old barn that she plans to dismantle this summer and raise a new one. Unlike many who have a construction project on the docket, Lichtensteiger, her husband and her brother Lance will be accomplishing the entire project themselves.
Wendy Lichtensteiger, like many artists who see things others don’t, sees a length, or a chunk or a stump of wood, and a world of preening birds, stalwart waterfowl and spouting whales suddenly live in a magical environment of her imagination.