Gregg Klewicki sometimes travels off the beaten path. It helps explain how he has carved out a career as an artist-sculptor despite no formal training and using little more than a chain saw.
"I was a truck driver and I just got tired of working for someone else," said Klewicki, 45, of Huntington.
He came to his new profession by experimenting and allowing his latent creativity to emerge.
"My education was life's hard knocks, but I wanted to do something creative although I never was creative as a kid," Klewicki said. "But once when I was about 20, I was at a party and I found some window putty in my friend's house and started to mold it into little faces, and suddenly everyone started raving about them.
"I realized that I could make sculptures that people might buy. My brother gave me a chain saw for cutting firewood, but I saw how it could also be a tool for carving shapes."
As a joke, Klewicki said, he made a giant nose for his lawn, and soon someone came by offering to pay $300 for it. After a few more projects sold, Klewicki quit his job in May 1995 and began his artistic career. Commissions began to pile up, and to date he has more than 1,400, ranging from wooden and steel-metal sculptures to wooden signs.
Many of his projects are bears, which have become his signature item. On-site jobs can take from a few days to several weeks to complete, depending in part on weather conditions. Clients must perform regular maintenance to prevent rot, insect invasions and erosion of the finish, which is topped off with two coats of marine spar varnish.
Klewicki received more commissions after superstorm Sandy hit Long Island in October. The storm ravaged properties and felled dozens of trees -- many beloved by homeowners who had enjoyed their beauty for years -- in communities across the Island. Thanks to Klewicki, known as "Gregg the Woodcarver," some have exacted revenge for their destroyed trees by having the remnants carved into artwork.
The designs depend on the natural shape of the wood and can spring from clients' personalities and interests or from Klewicki's vision. The end product is usually a combination of both.
Some designs that might require a heavy body supported by thin legs, such as horses or cranes, aren't doable. Klewicki's prices for individual items made in his work yard start at $150. Projects involving existing stumps on a client's property start at $500 and up depending on the complexity of the piece. Details such as claws, feathers and eyes are carved and hand-painted if appropriate. Splinters and chips are often burned off with a propane torch, which lends a naturalistic color and fur-like texture to his signature bears.
If clients have no stumps to contribute, Klewicki will supply the wood that he gets from sources such as landscapers.
Stump to symbol of pride
On the day after Sandy ripped into Long Island, Steven Schwartz, 51, of East Northport, looked at his front yard with dismay.
"Lying flat on the ground uprooted was the last tree on my property, a 75-foot spruce that I'd nurtured and admired for years," he said. After the initial shock, Schwartz and a neighbor began the arduous task of cutting the tree into short lengths for removal. They started at the top and worked slowly down the trunk using a chain saw.
"We got to 8 feet from the bottom when suddenly the stump sprang back into its hole, roots and all and uprighted itself," Schwartz recalled. "At first, not knowing what to do, I replaced the soil around the roots and was left with a bare trunk that reminded me of a totem pole."
Schwartz, who works in construction supply sales, said he began to entertain ideas, including somehow turning the trunk into an actual totem pole. But he chose another option.
"I decided to look for an artist I could commission to carve it. I found Gregg, who had some ideas of his own. There are now two bears hugging the trunk and an American bald eagle perched on the top. It's so symbolic of how I feel about that tree; people drive by slowly just to look at it. I'm so glad I went ahead with my vision of turning the trunk into something special."
Honoring mom, pet cats
For Rita Bisso, 50, an executive assistant, and her father, George Bisso, 83, there was no hesitation in choosing a model for the sculpture they wanted Gregg the Woodcarver to carve on the stump of the oak tree in their front yard in Hauppauge.
"After Sandy hit, we decided to take down four trees that might fall on the house during some future storm," she said. "My dad and I are avid feline fanciers and advocates of neutering and spaying; we share the house with a few cats that are wonderful companions. Not only that, but my mom, who died a few years ago, also loved cats and she loved the trees on the property, so we think of the cat-on-the-stump as a sort of memorial to her, although she would never have wanted to take those trees down when she was alive. So it was easy to tell Gregg exactly what we wanted."
The resulting sculpture is about five times larger than a common house cat, according to Bisso.
"It's very imposing," she said, "and it really points out how much we care about our pets."
Decorating the 'man cave'
Vincent Maggio said he never had a "man cave, a place of my own like some guys have dens or basement workshops." He did, however, have first dibs on a hammock stretched between two big oaks in a corner of his East Setauket backyard, or to be more precise, the stumps that remained after Maggio had the trees lopped off above 7 feet before Sandy hit.
"They were leaning toward the house, a definite hazard should they come down in a hurricane," recalled Maggio, 52, a property claim trainer. "I had them leave enough height for hooking up the hammock and I began to think of other ways to fix up my 'man cave.' I put in a fire pit and some big umbrellas and Adirondack chairs and wished I had enough creativity and skill to do something with those bare trunks.
"Finally, I called Gregg and he came and said the spot was 'kinda neat' and spent some time examining the trunks for buried nails or screws that could damage the chain saw blade. But he finally took the job and I'm ecstatic about the result: He carved a papa bear into one trunk and a mama bear into the other one, each one holding a flaming torch. At night it's spectacular.
"I've been thinking of other embellishments for the area -- I tend to go a little overboard -- but I decided to take the advice of my 12-year-old daughter, Angela, who always gives me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on my quirky ideas. She said, 'Dad, don't overdo it, it's fine the way it is.' "
Get in touch
WHO Gregg Klewicki, aka "Gregg the Woodcarver"
WHERE Work yard is at 1130 W. Jericho Tpke., Huntington (on the grounds of Indian Head Ranch)
HOW gregg-the-woodcarver.com; 631-692-7347