Amy Arnold had just arrived for a Kansas City art show when another artist suggested that she and her husband, Kelsey Sauber Olds, should apply for a spot in the 2016 Smithsonian Craft Show.
“We applied on a whim,” said Arnold, 40, who took out her iPad and completed an online application for the nation’s most prestigious juried craft show. Before she knew it, she and Olds, 39, were in.
So were their beguiling wood sculptures, which range from about a foot high to life-sized. Some are quizzically lifelike; others combine features both human and animal, folksy and playful.
The Viroqua-based couple planned to travel to Washington, D.C. in the family van. Going with them would be their home-schooled sons, ages 14, 10 and 8, and a load of their sculptures, which sell for $80 to $7,000.
Arnold grew up in Madison and found her passion for art while a student at West High School, she said. After studying ceramics at the University of Minnesota she met Olds, a Minneapolis native, when he was exhibiting at Madison’s annual Art Fair on the Square.
Arnold was working in soft fiber sculpture and recycled wool hats, and Olds was making furniture when they moved from Madison to rural Viroqua around 2005. About eight years later, Arnold began carving wood with her children — and discovered a whole new artistic partnership working in wood.
“Kelsey was helping me because he had a lot more skills than I did at that point with cutting things out,” Arnold said. “Then it was, wow, we should just work together. We do everything else together, and we love working together. And art, this aspect of our life, is really what brought us together and inspires us. So for the past three years we’ve been on the journey of trying to collaborate and support each other.”
They start with a sketch, then carve their figures from local basswood.
“There’s a lot of sawmills around here, and people are pulling trees out of their woods,” Arnold said. “It’s funny — when I was doing wool sculpture, people would leave big bags of sweaters on my porch. And if you make wood sculpture, people call you when they’re taking down trees.”
After carving with power and hand tools, sculptures get layers of milk paint and multiple sandings that add to their charm and mystery.
This spring and summer Arnold and Olds’ work will be on display at the art fair in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Winding Roads Art Tour in Viroqua.
“Sadly, we’re on the wait list” for Art Fair on the Square in Madison, Arnold said.
But “It’s a big honor” to be in the Smithsonian show, she added before heading off to Washington.