They seem to be everywhere, looking back at you—rough-hewn faces with enormous mustaches and lopsided grins, topped by oversized hats. Here and there a head woodenly grins from a windowsill or countertop. On a bookcase stands a quartet of musicians, fiddles and legs bowed. Nearby, a goofy gunslinger nervously points his six-shooter at the horizon.
Matt Rogers’s western woodcarvings have earned him a growing reputation among those who make or collect such work. His mother, Julie, is a professional artist who teaches art. And his siblings all have artistic talents. So you might say Matt’s accomplishments are to be expected. But raw talent is just the beginning.
The first piece of wood Matt carved was pine. And his chief tool was a pocketknife. Not exactly the best material or tool for wood carving. Pine is brittle. It chips and has hard knots in it. And Matt quickly learned that serious wood-carvers use a whole range of special tools that doesn’t include pocketknives. Matt has also learned that sometimes it’s the carver who is being shaped and molded.
Glendale, where the Rogers family lives, is a small southern Utah town spread along Highway 89 in the bottom of a beautiful mountain valley. It’s a place of apple orchards and pastures, with a rich pioneer history. TV reception in the valley is quite poor, but that just helps make for richer family relationships and more time for developing talents. The Rogers’s white-frame farmhouse is full of drawings and paintings, carvings and sculptures, all produced by family members.
On the wooden porch of the farmhouse, Matt sits in the dimming light of an autumn evening and talks about his life and his art and his hopes for the future. First he talks about the wood he uses for his carvings. Basswood from the midwest is his material of choice. “It doesn’t flake or chip like pine. It’s soft enough that you can carve details in it, but it’s not too soft,” he says. And the tools he uses: “V gouges and U gouges, and different tools for different details. I have to keep them sharp and fine-edged, because as you use them they become dull. Then, the tool’s not effective.”
As a wood-carver and sculptor, Matt can’t help but make comparisons between his art and his life. He thinks sometimes about how his life has been shaped. “I can see the Lord strengthening me. For two years when I was on my mission, I served others and I didn’t think of myself. Then I’d read my patriarchal blessing, and I could see these things that had come to pass. I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to do with my life, but I know that the Lord has a plan. That’s part of a process.”
So, is the Lord “carving” him?
“Yeah,” Matt answers.
Is it painful?
“Sometimes it is, yeah.”
One of the things that has shaped Matt’s life is diabetes, discovered when he was 12. He had to spend Easter in a hospital, badly dehydrated. How has it shaped him? “There’s a scripture that I like that could explain it better than I can. It’s in Ether, chapter 12, verse 27: ‘I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; … for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.’”
Matt sits in thought for a minute. The night has deepened and warm, yellow light from the kitchen spills onto the porch. In the pasture below the house, a horse whinnies softly. The talk turns to the qualities of wood again—about the problems with the big knots in wood like pine, how hard and brittle they are and how difficult they make it to shape the wood. And how difficult it must be for the Lord to shape us if our hearts are hard and brittle.
Matt sees the process of shaping people as a joint effort between the Lord and the individual. “You live your life and live the principles you have been taught, and the Lord will take you and show you things that you wouldn’t otherwise think He could do.”
Each of Matt’s carvings starts out pretty rough. But bit by bit, piece by piece, he turns it into something. “I have a vision of what I want it to be. And I make the rough cuts. And when I get it carved out, I change a couple of things to make it better. And then I make a few more coarse cuts and make it still better.” And so the process goes.
But it takes patience. “Sometimes you can get really involved in a piece and you ruin it because you haven’t stopped to look at what you are doing. You have to stand back, be patient, and wait,” Matt says. It’s like the experience he had with some of his investigators in the mission field. For example, one woman didn’t think she could give up smoking. “We had to be patient with her and give her blessings. But in the end, she made it and she, her husband, and their son and daughter were baptized.”
Thinking back, Matt speaks fondly of his mission presidents and how they helped to shape him as a missionary, making him a sharper tool in the Lord’s hand. “I had a lot of spiritual guidance,” he says. And the people he helped the Lord shape? “I think about them a lot, and about how they are doing. I miss the people, the interaction with them.”
Considering how much he cares about people, it’s no wonder Matt has been teaching sculpting at an area art center, even as his future is still being shaped. After all, a piece of wood is still just a piece of wood. But a life—now that’s a real work of art.