It sat there amongst old stumps, branches and chunks of wood ready for the chipper.
Local builder and former farmer Mark Kemper was at the Greater Vernon landfill when the giant stump of a weeping willow, with its burls protruding much like warts, caught his eye.
“I wanted to do something with it. I thought I would make a table out of it, but once I cleaned it up, I knew it was going to be a sculpture,” said Kemper.
“I had never seen a piece of wood with so much character. It had been rejected, but with love and care and attention, it became a piece of art.”
Upon seeing the piece at the landfill, Kemper asked the women at the scale if he could take more pieces from the wood pile.
Kemper was directed to Dale Dannalanko, Regional District of the North Okanagan’s recycling and disposal facilities operations manager, about salvaging wood from the landfill.
The idea was accepted, under a trial basis, and now Kemper and his son Joshua have the contract for salvage rights in Vernon, Lumby and Armstrong and are working towards Kelowna.
“Handling larger logs and stumps can be a challenge as they are heavy and bulky and need to be split before they can be chipped. It’s great that these large pieces of wood are being used to create these attractive pieces,” said Dannalanko.
Together, the Kempers have turned that wood waste into custom art, as well as one-of-a-kind hand-carved wine racks, tea light candle holders, cutting boards, coffee tables, bowls and other functional pieces.
They can now be seen at their new business, Kemper and Sons Artisan Millworks and Gallery, located in a 6,000 square-foot building that once housed a daycare.
Now, with its glossy finish and natural reds (blood-like in colour), the piece of willow that Kemper first carved sits as a centerpiece in the gallery space, and even has a poem, entitled The Healing, devoted to it.
“I try to leave my pieces as natural as possible. The piece is how I found it; how Mother Nature made it. I just brought it back to life again,” said Kemper. “Our pieces invite you to come and touch them. Some people want to hug them like they are hugging a tree.”
The back of the Kempers’ shop is filled with old stumps, branches, and other scraps of cottonwood, maple, birch, walnut, juniper and more collected from the landfill.
Since September, when the shop opened, the men have hauled 12 pickup loads, along with one flat-bed deck, where they had to use a crane.
In one corner of the woodpile is a “sandbox” filled with shavings for Josh’s two sons to play in, and the reason why the name of the business is Kemper and “Sons” instead of the singular.
Working with wood since he was a teen, Mark was rarely without a chisel after moving from his birthplace of Indiana to Lumby.
“My first introduction to woodworking was at Charles Bloom (secondary school). I loved making tables and everything else. Most guys would be buying cars, while I was saving money to buy woodworking tools,” he said.
Kemper would end up running a hog farm in Armstrong for 25 years before getting into construction after receiving his journeyman’s certificate.
He has since built pre-cut and custom homes in Japan, Budapest, the Canary Islands, Hawaii, and here in the Okanagan.
“In all the homes that I build I spend close attention to detail,” he said.
Kemper started up his workshop in Vernon while working as a project manager in Hawaii.
There he met a movie producer from L.A. who wanted a custom home built. Kemper realized he needed a shop in his hometown where he could mill the wood.
He found the perfect building through owner Mark Pho.
“When I spoke (to Dannalanko) about my connections in California, I told him I would be taking my pieces with me down there. The pieces that were once in the landfill in Vernon would now be at a movie star’s house in L.A.”
The concept of turning reclaimed wood into locally-made and sourced art has caught on here as well.
Kemper has been travelling around the Okanagan with some of his custom pieces to entice wineries and other tourism and gift-art related businesses to carry his work.
“It’s interesting how we’ve presented ourselves setting up an artisan workshop… Everything has changed and people are saying how incredible the work is. The wine racks are very classy and go along with the world class wines we have here,” said Kemper, who is in the works of showing a sculpture he made of a Burrowing Owl to the winery that bears the owl’s name in Oliver.
“We went to Sparkling Hill (Wellness Resort) and the manager said they would like to a display our work there. We also looked online and found the Art and Wine Bistro in Kelowna, which now has four of our pieces.”
The Kempers also have a famous owner of one of their hand-carved bowls. Mark’s daughter, Amber, was one of the hairdressers to work on the film Go With Me, shot in Enderby and Vernon area back in November.
“Amber got me on the film set when they were here and I got to meet Anthony Hopkins. I gave him one of my bowls as a gift. His personal assistant attested that he really liked it.”
Along with all his pieces, Kemper also has a picture of the actor kissing the bowl in his new gallery, which is located at 4701 29th St.