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Finding her Niche

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Sonja Maloney carves wildlife

Priest Lake resident Sonja Maloney is a master woodcarver with examples of her work now available for viewing on the Web, and the satisfaction of knowing her skill with a knife contributed to an architectural award bestowed on a vacation home at Huckleberry Bay a few years ago. She says she came to woodcarving unintentionally, via a circuitous route that took her from one more-conventional arts and crafts form to another, before she ended up with a knife in her hand.

She was turning out soft, cuddly cloth teddy bears, in a range of sizes, when she and her husband, Jim, moved to Coolin, on the lower east end of the lake, 14 years ago. For a while she continued to market “hundreds of them” at various craft shows, under the name, “Freddie’s Teddies & Country Things.” Bears were an appropriate subject for a new lake resident, since the area is well known for its healthy population of black bears and a few endangered grizzlies. 

About nine years ago, however, Sonja took up carving and began to use wood as her principal medium. “It just evolved,” she explained, with Jim providing the impetus. “He had cut down a big red fir tree. It had real thick bark. He said, "I hate to throw this away – we need to do something with it." So I went to the house and scrounged around until I came up with a cheap set of Japanese woodworking tools. In two hours I had carved a face about 18 inches by eight inches. Believe it or not, it looked like Jesus.

“Jim didn’t like it because he said "It looks like his eyes are following me"… so we gave it away. We’d like to have it back now, but she (the friend and neighbor it was given to) won’t part with it for anything,” 

Since then, Sonja has pretty much concentrated, except for Christmas Santas, on turning out depictions of Priest Lake’s abundant wildlife from native and scrap materials, but she also carves dolphins, African animals and 'feathers', and works on commission. She crafts most of her pieces in a workshop at her home, raising and lowering the wood to comfortable working height by means of a contraption Jim contrived for her out of an old dental chair. She displays and markets her art at a local resort occasionally and also from a small log building adjacent to her home that she and Jim constructed as a gallery. Sonja carved the notches in the ends of the logs by hand so they would be sure to fit together snugly.

She calls her small pieces “plank art” because they are carved out of the odd piece of wood. They include loons, herons, ducks, woodpeckers, raccoons, fish, etc. While she’s never kept good track of the hours involved in creating each piece, she estimates she puts in a minimum of 40 hours on the larger pieces.

A loon she donated last year to the annual Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce auction to raise money for local charities brought in $1100 and was purchased by a local. The piece stayed at the lake. That’s frequently the case.

  “People who buy my art keep it at the Lake,” Sonja said with quiet satisfaction. “I really like that. Peggy Wood, the secretary of Priest Lake Elementary School has a whole gallery of my stuff. She just fell in love with them.” 

A plaque featuring elk carved on a piece of myrtle wood which Jim picked up “at the dump” ornaments one wall in her home. Sonja finds working with “wild wood” poses the greater challenge, however, because there are knots and other imperfections to contend with that are not present in purchased wood. “I very seldom buy my wood,” she said.

She also carves maps of Priest Lake depicting the wildlife and notable geographic features like Chimney Rock for Lifestyle Realty. The business gives the items away as courtesy gifts to its clients. Each map is incised on a slab of wood approximately two inches thick, eighteen inches long and twelve inches wide. 

Her most recent project was an intricate walnut mirror frame decorated with a bluebird and her nestlings that Sonja carved for a vacation home at Huckleberry Bay, for which she earlier carved a four by seven foot native birch fireplace mantle. She spent a couple of months on the latter project, which depicts Chimney Rock and an assortment of native wildlife: moose, bear with cub, deer, mountain lion, eagle, caribou, and fish in a stream. Trees frame each side of the fireplace, and a huckleberry medallion is centered in the middle, below the mantle shelf.

The room the fireplace is situated in is opposite three arched windows, and is strikingly highlighted as well by other intricate woodwork created by the owner. 

Sonja’s biggest project, however, was the exterior wooden beams she carved several years ago for another vacation home at Huckleberry Bay, owned by a Spokane neurologist and back surgeon. Completion time for that project was about three months.

Each of the laminated beams, carved with moose, eagles, fish, bears, and rams, weighed 2000 pounds. They were three feet wide, seven inches thick and 35 feet long, and had to be turned with a crane. The challenge was to carve each side so that it exactly duplicated the other without being able to compare the two sides while the work was ongoing.

Inside the house, Sonja carved an archway of fish leaping in a stream. The finished home won an architectural award in Spokane, and was featured on Channel 4 Television’s Northwest Profiles program.

Sonja recently joined an organization of women woodcarvers (the group has one “token male” member, who makes knives), and her work can be seen on the Website: www.womenwithknives.com under the nickname “Lioness.” 

While the group claims members in Canada, England, and Australia, as well as in the United States, most of the current members are located in the eastern half of the U.S. Jim and Sonja abandoned the eastern seaboard themselves, they said, because of too many people and “too much pollution,” citing the Chesapeake Bay region where she was raised as an example.

The couple has lived all over the 

U.S., however, as well as overseas. Jim retired in 1972 after 22 years with the navy, and Sonja served three years in the WAVES. She left the navy about a year after her marriage because Jim was being transferred to Spain, and there was no billet there for her at the time.

Women With Knives held its first “World Wide Women’s Woodcarving Weekend” in Sandyville, West Virginia, in early September 2001, just prior to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Members range in age from 12 to 81, and some have been carving for over 30 years. Sonja did not attend, but “I do plan to go next year,” she said. “I really needed this group to get back into my carving mode.” 

Basically a support group, members of WWK also exchange tips and share techniques, but mostly its value for Sonja is “that it gives me a connection with women of similar interests.” 

She prefers carving with hand tools but also uses power tools occasionally. “But no chainsaws. I don’t do chainsaws,” she said.

Sonja did cooperate with a chainsaw artist, however, on behalf of the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce. For the Chipmunk Rapids visitor center, a joint project of the chamber and the U.S. Forest Service, Sonja and Pam Martin of the Entrée Gallery at Nordman designed a stunning “Welcome to Priest Lake” sign that was erected last year on State Highway 57, just south of the Dickensheet turnoff to Coolin. Chainsaw artist John Schultz carved the massive piece “because of its size.” It features – what else – those trademark Priest Lake bears. 

Oddly enough, the loons that are so popular with Sonja’s clientele do not appear to inhabit the lake, at least not as permanent residents. A local environmental organization has been trying hard to prove otherwise, conducting a loon count annually. So far, no trace of the reclusive birds has been found, although they are present at eastern Washington lakes nearby.

Sonja describes herself as a wildlife lover “from way back,” admitting somewhat ruefully “sometimes I have more feeling for animals than I do for people. I have a rapport with them, and I can see things about them that nobody else does.”

It was Priest Lake’s isolation, rather than the wildlife, that originally drew the Maloneys to Coolin. “We’ve always been country people, and always had to drive down long, long roads,” Sonja explained. “This place here was close to the highway and close to the lake. And Coolin is a nice little village, and the people are friendly. Also, we like the climate. We wanted to get out of that hot, humid weather back east.”

Familiar with the rest of the country, Sonja and Jim had never seen the Northwest when they set out to locate a new home for themselves. They were immediately intrigued. 

“Our original plan was to locate in Montana,” Sonja remembered. “We got as far as Clark Fork and changed our minds. We asked ourselves, "Why not Idaho?" We had everything we owned with us – two truckloads. We stayed at a motel in Hope for a month and drove around all over looking for a place to buy.” Priest Lake particularly intrigued them.

Finding nothing available, they went south to Harrison Flats and obtained a temporary job helping raise and groom Hereford cattle there for show. “But we kept coming back to Priest Lake.” Eventually, they found a repossessed home “in pretty bad shape at the time” that they were able to buy just up the road from Coolin.

It is, of course, no longer run-down. The Maloneys have transformed the place into an attractive, comfortable hideaway from the busyness of the world. Today, it’s the perfect setting for an artist endeavoring to ply her craft replicating the animals she loves in durable wood.

Writer Marylyn Cork, now retired, is the former editor of the Priest River Times.


Photos- Facing page, left- Attention to detail is what makes Maloney's carvings so enjoyable. Above- There's a landscape of wooden surprise in Maloney's workshop. Below- Sonja Maloney, with her husband-made "lift." 


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Marylyn Cork

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Priest Lake, sculpture, art, Sonja Maloney

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