Amber Jean tucks her wood-carving chisels into a pink canvas holder, but she gets to the core of her massive log creations with a chain saw.
She marks her artwork with the image of a cuddly, long-tailed, bunny-girl, but she pushes boundaries like a warrior.
The 43-year-old artist goes by just her first name, having dropped her surname of Reinhard.
Raised in Bozeman, she has grown up in the outdoors. Mountain biking, rafting, mountaineering and climbing frozen waterfalls are prime passions. Her home for nearly all of the last 15 years has been a cabin at the end of a dirt road on a mountainside in Paradise Valley.
During college at Montana State University in Bozeman, she worked seasonally on a trail crew, as a firefighter and as a wilderness ranger, experiences that taught her how to handle a chain saw.
In temporary studio space in Bozeman, a pair of logs loomed over her, each of them bigger around than an arm's reach. The logs, split lengthwise, hinged open like a book. One revealed the partial image of a sinewy she-devil.
Carved with horns, a curling tail and only the hint of a face, the devil had one cowboy boot firmly planted in smoldering flames. The textured wood behind her looked like a reptile's scales.
A tridentlike pitchfork pierced the mesquite wood of the other log.
Less than half of the she-devil's figure was visible, cut by the log's edge. In early January, the logs left the studio to flank the entrance of the Devil Woman's Saloon in Beeville, Texas.
When Amber Jean started the piece, the saloon already had an iconic logo of a devil woman. While she tried to stay true to the logo, she wanted to avoid making the life-size sculpture look like some image off a tractor-trailer's mud flaps.
In December, Amber Jean continued to work out the details of her creation. While she applied stain to the flames of the partially finished work, she mulled how she wanted to incorporate Swarovski crystals and tiny turquoise stones in the piece.
“I know what I want it to feel like,” she said. “I really like that juxtaposition between the raw strength with the fine carving and the soft, fleshy female. It's going to be a mix between those two.
The trident piercing the log and the smoldering flames may have a personal meaning for the artist.
In December of 2009, Amber Jean had surgery to remove a noncancerous fibroid tumor in her uterus. Before it was removed, the tumor had grown to the size of a football.
Since she had no health insurance, she left the hospital the same day as the surgery. Friends helped care for her.
For years, she got away without health insurance, which seemed unaffordable, and she dislikes the whole idea of insurance, which she thinks preys on people's fears.
“Fear is an integral part of life and an integral part of creation and being. And a big part of doing what I do is pushing the envelope and pushing the edge, but I refuse to let fear run things,” she said.
While she wrestled with her own health problems last spring, her father died of pancreatic cancer, just five weeks after he was diagnosed.
Before he became ill, she was commissioned by the Nestle chocolate company to create an enormous sculpture for the ChocolateFest in Burlington, Wis., home to a Nestle's factory.
The project was supposed to take three weeks on-site, working with a crew.
“I squished it down to seven days. We worked nine-hour shifts with three-hour breaks around the clock for seven days to get the commission done,” she said.
Her father died a few days after she flew home from Wisconsin.
To meet the time crunch, her boyfriend, Paul Bierman, a Bozeman contractor, volunteered to work on the project. Using chocolate and candy, she re-created the moment from “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy's dog, Toto, tugs back a curtain to reveal the wizard as a sham. The scene's wizard looked like Willy Wonka.
The project consumed 5,000 outdated miniature Nestle's Crunch bars patterned to look like floor tiles, along with vats of turquoise-colored wild-berry Nerds and green Spree candies.
She carved Toto, the star of the piece, from solid chocolate.
In 1999, she fashioned a 14-foot chocolate totem pole for the festival. The following year, she sculpted a chocolate bed with the Nestle Quik Bunny tucked under a 500-pound patchwork quilt made of candy.
Her serious artwork also garnered attention in 2010. The editors of WOOD Magazine named her as one of America's Woodworking Greats, and in September, she was inducted into the Stetson Craftsman's Alliance, the hatmaker's attempt to honor excellence in crafts. The induction was part of the Cody, Wyo., exhibition “Women Who Design the West.” For an earlier Western Design Conference, in Cody in 1999, she created a gnarled juniper and mahogany bed with horses charging across the headboard and footboard.
“I made this gigantic bed because I wanted people to feel the wood towering above them, and I wanted them to feel the power of the horses,” she said.
Although the bed frame is enormous, the horses take over the frame, in the same way the Devil Woman goes off the page.
A little more than a year ago, she met the woman who owns the Devil Woman's Saloon. After they developed a strong friendship, the woman sprung the idea of building a studio for Amber Jean near the artist's cabin in Paradise Valley.
“This gift of a studio just happened, which was like winning the lottery, only much better,” Amber Jean said.
Bierman is the contractor on the project, which should be done this spring.
Around the time of Amber Jean's surgery, Bierman urged Amber Jean to visualize her dream studio as a way to make it manifest itself. She remembers telling him that she was having a tough time just trying to manifest her monthly mortgage payment.
The finished studio will have high ceilings and a massive hoist to allow her to do even grander carvings. It will also have a nap room for breaks, like the temporary studio space that she shared in Bozeman.
Her desire to tackle large-scale projects led her to woodcarving. While she was in school at MSU, she couldn't figure out how to afford the cost of materials for those large-scale creations until she realized that she could harvest standing dead trees from the national forest with a $20 firewood permit.
From her first wood pile, she pulled a little log to carve a Santa for her mother.
“I started after it with a chisel and I was really disappointed because I could see the Santa in there, but I couldn't get to it fast enough,” she said.
Her boss at the time, a forester, suggested that she start with a chain saw. Although she now owns three chain saws, along with routers, grinders and other power tools, she does the finish work on her carvings with chisels. She mixes her own stains and layers them to get unique, rich colors.
Because she never trained as a woodcarver, she tends to use unorthodox metal-working tools, including a pneumatic dye grinder, more commonly used by car mechanics. Many of the exotic textures in her carvings are done with steel bits meant for metalworking.
While working on large projects, she got into the habit of spending the first hour in her studio sipping tea and looking at her works-in-progress.
“I decided to start coming in and spending that first hour of tea-sipping just playing on paper. And it's a very playful process,” she said.
Her small, fanciful prints are limited by the size of her antique printing press. She also does small-scale wood carvings, which she casts in bronze.
While she likes commissions, she hopes to move toward doing more museum pieces. This summer, the Holter Museum in Helena exhibited part of her series, “Reliquaries,” named for the containers used to hold sacred objects.
The original series included five towering logs, each split in half and hinged like a book.
Some contain recognizable personal relics from her life, meant to have universal significance. One contains the collar of a past pet, her dog, Shiva. Another contains a piece of her grandma's lingerie.
In another, arrows made with stalks of wheat, pierce a log. When she made it, she was going through a painful breakup with a former boyfriend.
“I'm taking something like this difficult breakup, where it feels like you've been pierced by arrows,” she said.
By making the arrows wheat, the piece becomes more of a statement about the Earth and less about the artist.
Contact Donna Healy at email@example.com or 657-1292.