Photo: Elaine Walker
Caveman Al in the press
Elaine Walker of the Anacortes American wrote an article about Caveman Al, his miniature sculptures, and his Anacortes studio. In 2009 this article earned Elaine first place (in the circulation category) for "Best Story on the Arts" in the Better Newspaper Contest of the Washington State Newspaper Publishers Association. Well done, Elaine!
Below are links to this and other articles, plus a complete article (not featured online) written by Larissa Pfeifer, also of the Anacortes American.
Anacortes' Caveman Al Works with Reality
From the inside out, his miniatures are meticulous
If you were to chop apart one of his tiny trees, you'd see layers of wood inside.
The miniature sculptures are so meticulous, people mistake them as real.
Al spends hours in a small studio inside his home, crafting painstakingly detailed little sculptures of trees, shops and garden scenes.
"Figuring out how to do something people say is impossible - that's a real turn-on," he said. "It's all made that way because I want to show you pictures of my things and make you think it's real. I'm driven by this; I know this is what I wanted to do."
Al's motives hint at his offbeat personality. He's a 68-year-old guy who calls himself a hermit, parks his 1968 Saab Sonnet in a spot that says "This space reserved for Al," and hands out business cards with an illustration that resembles himself when you look at it one way, then looks like an ape when you turn the card upside-down
Most know Al, a retired electronics engineer, as "Caveman Al" because he calls his studio his cave. His last name is Smith, but no one uses it.
Al's work remains largely unknown, and he's not likely to sell his minute pieces to a casual buyer. Al methodically records the number of hours he spends on each piece - usually hundreds - and he prices the work accordingly.
The result? It might cost someone $25,000 for a diminutive weeping willow with 8,080 hand-cut leaves and 505 branches that took Al 1,009 hours to create.
"What's it worth? A year and a half of my life and someone wants to give me $500? No thank you," Al said. "What's my time worth? It's certainly not worth 30 cents. I want to sell these pieces; they're piling up, but I'm not going to give them away."
Al's dedication brings him admiration.
"Al loves a challenge," said Jack Penrod, a friend of Al's and an Anacortes woodcarver. "I would say, 'Well, it can't be done. You can't come up with a tool to make siding that's no wider than the narrow end of the toothpick,' and that's what he loves, having a problem and finding a way to solve it."
To see why it takes Al a year and four months to complete a 6-inch willow tree, you have to follow his process. Right now, he is working on a pair of maple trees.
He begins making each leaf using a handmade paper puncher. The metal prongs stamp a rough leaf shape the size of a pea into thick green paper. Al is very particular about why he does his work this way.
"A maple leaf is not cut out; the edges are serrated - scissors wouldn't do it," he said, swirling his fingers around in the air to show how odd it would be to try to cut such intricate edges with scissors.
Although every maple leaf begins with the same stamp, each differs depending on how Al adds more holes with a needle to finish the leaf shape. Then he rips it out of the paper.
Al bends in closely to do this detail work, his shoulder-length gray hair tied back in a ponytail. Each leaf has four to five colors, layered on using a beat-up brush to convey the grain. The leaves appear lighter on the bottom than the top, just like a leaf should look.
Once a leaf has all its color layers, it feels kind of leathery. Now Al shapes it, forming the leaf around the knob of a small metal shaping tool he devised. It gives the leaf a slight, natural curve.
He attaches each leaf to its own wire, which will become the branch. Then he twists the wires of several leaves together using a machine with the nonsense name "Klantban" that he invented himself.
He has devised all kinds of specially made machines because he can't find the exact tools he needs commercially. It's the same reason he designed a small glass box that swings around and shakes up his paint to keep it from clotting, and why he built a saw that can cut slivers of wood a couple hundredths of an inch thick.
After Al twists together the wires of his leaves to form bunches, he's ready to give life to these branches. He fabricates a wood look atop the wires with a thick mixture of acrylic paint and other materials he calls a "secret sauce." He uses the side of a toothpick to apply the texture.
No one will see the underlayer of lighter wood color Al puts on the branches, but that doesn't matter to him.
"I don't see the inside of you either. But if all I saw was a shell, you might not look real either," he explained.
By now, his leaf-making process is second nature. Yet Al spent hours determining how to design the first leaf. Now that he has it figured out, he still has perhaps another thousand leaves he must create to finish the tree. That's where Al admits it can get tedious to produce his elaborate tree sculpture.
"I get bored with that one completely. To my mind I don't need to do it anymore, but for you to see what's in my mind I need to finish it," he said.
To amuse himself and viewers, he adds quirky details to his work. In the willow tree sculpture he perched an eagle, which watches a garden snake under the tree. The snake stalks a mouse, which peeks out from a hole by the tree roots. Al called that sculpture "Dinner Under a Willow Tree."
Al does all of his work in a room that's 14 feet by 12 feet. Around his work area sit signs of his other dwarf-sized projects, which showcase his humor. There's the miniature scene he developed of a laundry shop and deli called "The Laundwich Shop." The scale is a quarter of an inch to 1 foot.
From the exterior, the sculpture looks like a sandwich with windows. Inside, the scene includes handmade laundry baskets the size of taffy candy pieces and hand-cast washing machine covers the size of a dime. On one side of the minuscule shop stands a naked man happily doing his laundry. On the other side stands a woman throwing her hands up in shock. "The Laundwich Shop" costs $7,500.
You can't find Al's work in many places. One of the few is Insights gallery in Anacortes, owned by Annette Williams. She displays Al's "The Laundwich Shop" to the surprise of some customers.*
"It was such a hoot. People just laughed and loved it and were amazed and couldn't figure it out. It draws a lot of comment and that's what you need," Williams said. "They're really an attraction - they're a human-interest attraction."
That's what Al loves to hear.