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Posted on Thu, May 19, 2011 : 5:57 a.m.

Ann Arbor sculptor Mike Kapetan turns wood into poetry, creating abstract art and sundials

By Janet Miller


Ann Arbor woodcarver and sculptor Mike Kapetan with sculpture he's done for a private collection.

Janet Miller | For

Mike Kapetan carves poetry out of wood.

He takes pieces of black walnut or oak or any number of other woods and turns them into pieces of art meant to stir a response or create a thought. He brings the realm of the invisible into sight, he says.

The Ann Arbor master woodcarver and sculptor works in three areas: Liturgical images and objects for a wide variety of faiths; abstract sculpture that Kapetan calls visual music and solar sculpture or sundials, the most famous of which sits on the lawn on the vice president’s house in Washington.


Detail from a carving Mike Kapetan did for a church commission of his work.

Janet Miller | For

Kapetan usually works in wood -- poplar, wenge, butternut and a woodcarver’s best friend, basswood -- but some of his sculpture is cast in bronze.

“I’m the Will Rogers of woodcarving, I never met a piece of wood I didn’t like,” said Kapetan, Michigan born and Harvard educated.

Most of his work is liturgical -- from alters to crucifixes to religious icons for a variety of faiths -- and is in nearly 40 churches and temples across the United States, including St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dexter. He recently expanded into Canada.

“People like to have wood in their places of worship,” Kapetan said. “There is an inherently spiritual quality to wood. People have always lived in a symbiotic relationship with trees: They spell out the seasons, they offer shelter, fuel and sustenance.”

But Kapetan also sells abstract art and sundials to private collectors, including at the River Gallery Fine Art in Chelsea.

While his religious art is realistic, his gallery art is abstract. “It’s more visceral. It’s more about having a gut reaction,” he said.

His abstract art marries art with science and sometimes spirituality. He frequently uses simple algorithms or natural principles such as the “Golden Section” about human proportion to guide his sculptures.

And he looks to concepts such as the Trinity for inspiration.

“I’ve always been interested in how the world works - science. And why the world works - religion. And wonder at the beauty of the world - art,” Kapetan said.

His sculpture “Ring-Wave-Ring” explores the idea of Ring theory with a circular continuum wave form. The ring is made from sugar pine while the base is made from wenge, a richly dark tropical timber. Another work is inspired by the string theory, with Douglas fir carved to look as if it is vibrating in round, circular pulses.

Another sculpture is a meditation on the Trinity and features three gem-carved forms made from three different woods and in varying lengths springing from a triangular wedge of wood standing on an oval platform.

“It’s about how can three things have one essence but be different,” Kapetan said.

This combination of art and science also comes through with Kapetan’s sundials, which he calls solar sculptures or calendric sculptures because they are as much art as they are timepieces. They follow the tradition of Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon, he said, and draw the viewer into the art.


Mike Kapetan's "Christos" is a modern take on a traditional Byzantine icon. It is dyed Basswood.

Photo courtesy of Mike Kapetan

He was commissioned by Al and Tipper Gore -- Kapetan was college friends with the former vice president during their days at Harvard -- to cast an annalematic sundial made from granite for the grounds of the vice president’s residence. This ancient method of marking time is juxtaposed just 100 yards from the nation’s atomic clock, the most technologically advanced way to parse time, he said.

But Kapetan’s abstract sculpture is also about emotion: The dark and moody sculpture "Mourning's Eve" is an abstract that expresses waves of grief and mourning carved from walnut and oak.

Kapetan has also expanded beyond abstract art for private collectors with more realistic work: He carved a relief sculpture for an Ann Arbor client called “River Path” made from basswood. He carved an image of the Green Man, the pre-Christian symbol of the forest, for another Ann Arbor client.

And he’s started to work on portraits, including Abraham Lincoln and Pope and Pope John XXIII. He also completed "Dreamer Dreaming" is a portrait of a contemporary American dancer carved from sugar pine.

“I hope people who buy my art use it for a profound sense of enjoyment,” Kapetan said. “I hope it surprises them and doesn’t become background noise. I hope, from time to time, it leaps out at them.”


Katering K

Thu, May 19, 2011 : 5:51 p.m.

Even better when you actually see the beaufitul craftmanship and eye for the detail. Not only is MIchael's art meaningful, purposeful and memorable he is a wonderful thoughtful, gentle man. We are fortunate to have such creative people who clearly knew their direction in life surround us with such talent.


Thu, May 19, 2011 : 2:43 p.m.

Beautiful wooden sculptures and art. Such amazing talent, so gifted!