Carving his niche: Dennis Ruane’s career flows like his artwork

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Sitting at a workbench in the back of his gallery on Main Street in Waynesville, wood worker Dennis Ruane meticulously carves a tiny bearded man into the handle of a spoon. The spoon is a replica of one of his early pieces, being made for a collector up North who saw the work on the cover of Ruane’s novel Wooden Spoons.


Ruane doesn’t often do this type of carving anymore. Over the years he has branched out, embracing large-scale carving that begins with tree trunks and chainsaws and ends with flowing, abstract forms that bring out the wood’s natural character. The replica spoon is a special project, something to keep his hands busy when he’s keeping an eye on the gallery.

But spoons are what gave Ruane his start. As a child, Ruane attended a small Catholic school in which classes were limited and art wasn’t offered. However, his scout leader was an avid whittler. Picking up the skill, Ruane earned his first merit badge carving.

Years later, when Ruane was in graduate school in Madison, Wis., studying nutrition, he still had the same knives he used in scouts. Although his studies were going well — he had already earned his undergraduate degree in veterinary science — he felt as though he wasn’t on the right path. With the support of artist friends he began carving spoons, and was accepted into an artists co-op. For more than a year he tried to pursue both his interest in carving and his PhD. But it didn’t last.

“I reached the point where I just couldn’t stand it anymore,” he said. “One day I just threw my notes in the garbage and walked out.”

Ruane moved to Pennsylvania, where he originally was from, and spent the next 15 years carving.

“Once I got out into the real world I realized that I had something that sold and I’d better make them fast,” he said of his spoons.

He went on to open his own gallery in Maryland, but the economy wasn’t quite right for an artist to make a living. Someone suggested that he take a look at Western North Carolina, and on a warm Easter weekend seven years ago he visited Black Mountain. He talked to everybody in town and asked the local artists where they’d be if they weren’t in Black Mountain. The answer was unanimous — Waynesville.

Moving in to town with plans to buy a Main Street building for a gallery and residence, Ruane was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the business community was of his idea. The banks didn’t balk at his loan request. The downtown shoppers were appreciative of the arts.

The community’s open embrace, in part, allowed him to be more creative, creating pieces such as the Endless Enigma and Wind Surfer, currently on display in the gallery. Ruane admits that his medium is in part what makes his craft appealing.

“Most people like wood to begin with,” he said.

Generally speaking, Ruane doesn’t pay for the wood he works with. Trees have a habit of coming down – such as a huge walnut tree that was recently cut down at a local bed and breakfast. Ruane claims the wood and in exchange offers the owner something made from it in return. As a result of the process, the works in his gallery reflect what type of wood has come in — in color, texture and shape.

“A lot of times I’ll just put the log on the bench and start working on it,” Ruane said. “Finally I feel comfortable enough to just take a piece of wood and play with it.”

Consequently, works transform themselves. Ruane had always wanted to make an Osprey — a large raptor often found near the sea — and once he found a branch that appeared as though its shape would lend itself naturally he set to work. However, the proportions for the wings weren’t working and Ruane began carving out a human form before he set the work aside.

“I never anymore get to the point that something’s a total loss,” he said.

A couple in the gallery during the Haywood County Arts Council’s Studio Tour saw the piece, said they loved it, and so Ruane finished it just for them.

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