Countless people find themselves in jobs they don’t love. Olney resident Colin Vale was one of them. Early in his career as a computer programmer, he felt overworked, physically stressed and plain unhappy. As a mechanical engineering and technology entrepreneurship student at the University of Maryland, he recalled, “I saw all the jobs for mechanical engineers … were for defense contractors, either building bombs or boats or planes to that end. I didn’t want to put my brain to work toward killing other people.”
Vale walked away from the tech world. Today, at 31, he calls himself Carving Colin. An artist, he transforms wood into large-scale sculptures using a variety of tools, from chainsaws to hand chisels, a small die grinder called a dremel, hand sanders and natural linseed oil for finishing.
His latest work, and largest commission to date, was unveiled in March at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. He designed and carved “The Only Time Is Now” from the 10-foot stump of a once-towering sycamore tree that died in 2021.
But before he settled on building his career as an artist, Vale, a Sherwood High School graduate, took time off to travel the world and meet people. He spent one month each in 13 different countries, doing odd jobs or working on sustainable farms in exchange for room and board. His adventure included working at a pomegranate farm in South Africa, helping with wiring a youth hostel assisting with renovations on a family-owned restaurant in Japan and working on a flower farm in Uruguay. Other stops included Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina.
Planting Seeds for Art
But his most life-changing encounter occurred on Easter Island, which he calls by its native name, Rapa Nui. “The seed [for becoming an artist] was planted on Easter Island by Moi Moi Tuki. He’s Rapa Nui and he showed me wood carving on a small scale with an adze” — an ax-like tool with a small curved blade.
Vale learned the fundamentals of carving from Tuki, a true master who carries on the island’s tradition of carving small wooden moai, which resemble the iconic ancient giant stone figures of ancestors of the Rapa Nui. “Tuki was very generous to share his knowledge with me,” Vale said, “because the people don’t really know how to carve like they did” in earlier times.
After returning home, Vale tried his hand at carving his own small wooden figures and elaborate pipes. But he realized that, especially in America, bigger is better. So he started chainsaw carving, focusing on large outdoor wood sculptures. The pandemic gave him time to focus on his art, which favors figures and elements from nature.
The Only Time Is Now
With his long hair and John Lennon-style glasses, Vale resembles a visitor from the 1960s counterculture. He strives to be a conscientious steward for the planet and his best works utilize natural materials, which he acknowledges will ultimately decay.
Vale began carving the sycamore stump in November 2021.
Throughout the winter and early spring, passersby stopped to observe his progress and discern meaning from his evolving work. He enjoyed asking onlookers what they saw and what they thought the sculpture might mean. And he hopes it inspires some to plant a tree or cultivate their own gardens.
“A lot of people are stewards of trees,” Vale said, gesturing to the beautifully kept Brookside landscape. “Plant a tree. As it grows, you feel better and the tree feels better … Trees give to us. They’re already doing a lot for us by taking the carbon dioxide out of the air … The best time to plant a tree is now.”
He continued, “Think of it figuratively as if life is a tree seed. The lesson of tree seeds is that they’re durable. They look nothing like trees, which is weird. They need to be planted, watered. After they break out of that shell, they get a little bit bigger in some dimension every single day. That’s the kind of seed you need to plant: a seed of change for global warming, or a seed of change for politics, or a seed of change for your relationship with your partner … think about real seeds and all that they can teach us.”
Now that he has finished the piece, he said that he drew inspiration for the sculpture from neighboring trees in the garden — including a nearby Norway spruce and its cones with their perfect Fibonacci sequence; a maple tree with its pointed jagged-toothed leaves and winged seed pods.
Under Vale’s artistic hand, Brookside’s once grand sycamore lives again. His sculpture stands as a testament to the natural environment, and it, too, will decay, crack from the sun, deteriorate from the fungus that initially killed the tree. It serves as a potent reminder of time, life and death, and impermanence.
“Art isn’t permanent. Everything is impermanent,” he noted. “All beautiful things should be appreciated as if in 10 minutes somebody could come with a match or something.”