A teacher’s footsteps echo on the ceramic floor as her pupils sit armed with their crayons. Making her rounds, the teacher spies an unfamiliar scene on one student’s page.
“Lonnie,” she says. “Trees don’t look like that.”
Looking at the purple tree he has drawn, Lonnie replies, “Uh-huh, someplace in the world there’s a tree just like this.”
Thirty-seven years later, Lonnie Tapia still sees art in the trees.
What was a majestic fallen maple tree in this artist’s back yard has become a sculpture of two tigers standing on their hind legs, each cat’s head framed by the paws of the other.
They represent more than power and competition. The piece’s combination of sculpture and painting represents the artist’s craving for diversity in his work.
Every curve of each mouth, each leg, each tail represents the lessons this piece has taught Lonnie.
The tigers’ noses become lifelike with the graze of a finger, the result of meticulous cut upon cut. The pads of their paws, sanded to a velvet touch, are cracked to imitate the weathered and worn look of a prowling animal.
Although another artist might show individual hairs with brushstrokes, Lonnie makes them tactile with grooves cut in the wood. Call it being a perfectionist or an overachiever. He’ll say he’s just particular.
He wants to make it as good as possible, even if that means adding touches only he would notice. Like the more than 2,000 shims — thin squares of wood — placed snuggly into cracks no wider than half a matchstick.
There are some touches Lonnie wishes he didn’t notice. One tail is a bit fluffier, one foot a little more narrow, one leg a little more broad. The differences are to make sure the sculpture is balanced and able to hold its own weight.
Working with a gem
Another part of the artistic process comes down to what Lonnie likes to call “dumb luck.”
When the Y-shaped maple was small, the two stems twisted, creating a void in the middle. As time passed, the tree grew over it. If the tigers had been oriented as little as an inch in either direction, the void would have re-emerged and ruined the piece. Lonnie has learned that wood ultimately dictates its own shape.
That’s why there are no drawings in his studio. That information lies within Lonnie’s mind, in the mental slide show of Discovery Channel shows, even the gentle flare of his housecat’s paw as he squeezed it. Some days Lonnie can’t wait to get out to his workshop to play with the tigers. Other days, he sees it as work — work that’s been dragging on for more than three years. Work he’s not getting paid for, at least not yet.
Then someone will stop by to check on his progress, or he’ll watch the reaction of someone who sees the sculpture for the first time — that gives him the motivation he needs to finish. “Creativity should be dynamic and constantly evolving,” Lonnie says. “If I don’t see a level of versatility, of taking chances or risking failure in order to succeed, to me, that person’s not an artist.”