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'Priceless'

Woodcarver Alva Christian displays his work. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 4
Woodcarvings by Alva Christian of Barnum are made with no glue. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 4
Woodcarver Alva Christian of Barnum holds his favorite carving, surrounded by his other works. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal3 / 4
Woodcarver Alva Christian of Barnum shows off his carvings. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal4 / 4

Many of us have little things that were passed down from our grandparents: a family heirloom, a favorite recipe or a specific facial feature. Barnum's Alva Christian picked up his favorite hobby from his grandfather more than 80 years ago.

Growing up just south of Cloquet, Christian would see his grandpa whittling away at his woodcarvings, but he usually thought nothing of it. However, breaking his leg as a child turned into a blessing in disguise: it got him to try woodcarving himself, which led to a lifelong love. He made his first project in first grade from a broomhandle, and from there his pieces just kept getting better.

"I was a natural at crafts," Christian said. "And I have nervous hands. I need to be doing something."

Christian's fidgety hands began creating intricate works of art. He started carving layered pieces, working from the outside in. Even more impressive, he never uses glue. All the tiny pieces come from one piece of wood, carved into moveable toys. Christian says he works usually with a pocketknife, but for smaller pieces he uses an "old-fashioned straight-edge razor."

His largest piece is as big as a log — the smallest, as big as a finger. He begins by picking a piece of wood and carving into it different-sized cages, with axles on the outside to turn the cages. Finally he carves balls inside each cage. While some carvings take him around two weeks to complete, his largest ones require six months.

Yet, no two of his carvings are exactly alike.

"Each one, I add a little more complication," Christian said. He also likes to use the wood as it grows — each knot or imperfection adding something unique to the carving.

He admits that not every project has been successful.

"You have to be careful," he said of a project that he carved too thin. "But I just discontinued (that carving) and started another one."

In addition to his moveable carvings, he's also done large statues, including eagles and a carousel horse for his granddaughter. Christian estimates that he's done hundreds of carvings, and likes to give them away to family members.

While he doesn't typically sell his woodcarvings, Christian did have an appraiser take a look at his pieces so they could go into a museum. He found that his work was literally priceless.

"He couldn't appraise them," Christian said, "because there's nothing to compare it with. No one else does this."

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