Roger Butterfield works on a wood carving at his shop in Central Point. - Jamie Lusch

Local man takes on snow-sculpting challenge

Roger Butterfield leans over a heavy wooden bench in the workshop behind his garage, delicately chiseling little ribbons of wood off the wings of one of his favorite pieces — a round angel face with two feathered wings spread on either side. He runs his fingers over each individual feather, feeling the texture of the wood. Each feather is handcrafted and blends seamlessly into the rest of the wing, the product of hours of painstaking work with hammer and chisel.

He straightens up and scratches absently at his short, brown beard, analyzing his work. The piece, "Spirit Wings," is nowhere near done, but the feathers on the wings are starting to become more detailed, and the ghost of a face can be seen in the middle, the subtle contours hinting at a nose, a pair of eyes and two plump, cherub cheeks.

He started the piece more than 20 years ago but has put it aside again and again as things come up.

"I put it away because I had commissions to work on," he said. "I'm going to complete it one day, though."

Butterfield, 59, is a self-described ornamental and architectural wood carver who has been carving for more than 28 years.

This year, however, he will be trading wood for hard-packed snow during the annual Budweiser Select International Snow Sculpture Competition in Breckenridge, Colo., where 14 teams representing countries from Canada to China will gather from Jan. 24 to Jan. 28 deep in the Colorado Rockies. The goal is to see who can build the best snow sculpture.

Butterfield became the Australian team's designated detail carver after an original member ditched the event for an international sand-sculpting competition on the beaches of Sydney, Australia.

"They contacted me, and it took me about three seconds to say yes," said Butterfield. "Now I'm a proud member of the Australian team."

The team will be constructing the "Temple of the Four Seasons," a gigantic snow structure with unsupported flying arches and four medallions, each a meter wide, with a symbol representing each of the four seasons. As a finishing touch, the team will add a snowman inside the temple, praying to the gods of winter for it to stay cold. The medallions and the snowman are Butterfield's job, while the rest of the team builds the remainder of the structure.

"Currently, my mind is filled with monumental images of snow sculptures," said Butterfield, who leaves for Breckenridge today. "It's going to be so cool."

"We will quarry the blocks of snow out of the center of the cube to build the arches," he said, explaining that the team starts off with a 20-ton cube of packed snow.

This is not Butterfield's first trip to Breckenridge. He led a team of Rogue Valley artists and sculptors to victory back in 2007 with a larger-than-life bust of one of the team member's relatives. "Team Oregon" went home with a gold medal that year, as well as the people's choice award. He has been invited back every year since then, though woodworking commissions and other obligations prevented him from attending.

Butterfield has organized several snow-sculpting ventures in the valley as well, including two events on Mount Ashland — one in 2006 and another in the spring of 2007.

Butterfield is a native of the Rogue Valley, graduating from Medford High School in 1971. His grandfather taught him to whittle in his workshop outside of Brookings.

"I'm self taught, but looking back, I really believe I got my start visiting my grandpa in Brookings during summer vacation," he said. "He taught me how to whittle."

After earning a degree in design from Southern Oregon College, he moved to Colorado, where he got into the solar industry. He was living in Maryland when he first discovered he could make a living as a sculptor. He saw a classified ad in the newspaper for stone carvers for the Washington National Cathedral and was intrigued.

"That's when I first realized it was possible to get a job as a carver," he said. "Who gets a job as a carver? It's very unusual ... that's when I started doing commissions for churches."

For the next several years, Butterfield made a living carving wings for Unity churches and developed a thriving niche market. The symbol for the Unity Church is a globe flanked by two outspread wings, which represents the uplifting of the spirit.

More than 20 years after leaving the Rogue Valley, Butterfield came home, bringing his woodworking business with him. He began taking commissions, and many houses in Jackson County feature his carved fireplace mantles.

Business has been slower these past few years, as most families can't afford fine woodworking to accent their living room these days.

"For years, I was able to do this full time," he said, adding that he now has to do odd jobs to get by. "I would like to get back to the point of doing my woodworking exclusively ... . I sense that the tide is turning. I see new housing being built, and people being a little looser with their money."

Butterfield has several projects in the works. One is a commission he picked up while showing his work over Thanksgiving weekend in the Fine Woodworking Show put on by the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Great Hall.

The client's grandfather had purchased a cabin on the Klamath River that had been built in the 1880s and wanted to carve the massive oak mantletop positioned over the fireplace. Unfortunately, the grandfather died before his dream could be realized, and the mantletop remained unadorned. After meeting with the client and examining the mantletop, Butterfield agreed to carve the 100-year-old piece of oak. He's in the planning process, sketching out his ideas on paper before working the wood.

Another commission Butterfield has is to carve two memorial monuments for a client and her deceased husband. The monuments will emulate the traditional Aloalo grave posts of Madagascar, and each will contain scenes detailing the most important elements of their lives, such as who they were, what they did, how many children they had and what was most important to them.

"Most of the work I do is commission work," Butterfield said. "Some of it involves patterns, some of it involves images, but it all has a meaning ... as I'm working, my intention is integrated into my work."

"It's hard to get a handle on exactly what I do unless you see my work," he added.

Back in his wood shop in the back of the garage, Butterfield takes off his work apron. The apron is about 10 years old, the heavy-duty cloth worn down over years of continual use. Most days he's in his shop for about five hours, chipping and chiseling away. Sometimes he's there for longer, especially if he's behind on a commission.

"When I go to shows and stuff, people will always tell me, 'Boy, Roger, you've got a lot of patience,' " he said. "That's not entirely true ... the people playing golf for five hours, do they have a lot of patience?

"When you're doing something that you love to do, the time just flies."

Reach reporting intern Nils Holst at 541-776-4368 or email

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