A building contractor by trade, 80-year-old Don Stephenson is still carving, sanding and painting. But instead of shopping centers, these days he builds in an art form known as "intarsia."
Intarsia is an ancient craft where individual pieces of wood are sculpted. They become jigsaw pieces and the compilation of them makes a whole work of art. Intarsia dates back to the days of King Tut, the artist said.
A life-size eagle soars over a table in the Stephenson home, a pair of eagles lock beaks for a reconnection of their souls near the mantle and three-foot-tall Apache Night Dancers adorn the wall behind the desk.
The soaring eagle is a combination of more than 350 pieces of wood, Stephenson said. Putting the wood together using the natural colorations, the eagle takes on a life of its own. The intricate details, down to the feathers of its head, denote a painstaking process.
One piece of art can take as long as a month to complete, he said.
"You can't make no money doing this," he said with a chuckle.
Stephenson gets his ideas from the things he admires. Pictures, artifacts of Indian life and rituals weave their way into the intarsia-scapes that he creates.
A medicine man holding a fetish is one of his wife's favorites, he said. It is a recreation of a find at an excavated scene he had heard about on the Ojai River.
There are some his wife has no use for -- those deal with death. He has portrayed the Mexican Death Cart and some of the Indian and Mexican dancers that bear skulls.
Eagles are one of his most popular creations. So much so that Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealerships have contracted four or five of them for their showrooms.
His work also is being shown and sold at the Casa de Artistas on Main Street in Scottsdale.
Once an idea is planted, Stephenson draws it out, including where tiny pieces will be inset to create the larger image.
"You just draw it how you want it," he said. "Then you can just foresee these pieces, at least I can. There is a lot of work to this process. I am so particular that when I get done with a piece, there is always something wrong with it. I always say, ‘If I had it to do over again, I would change this right here.'"
Currently, there are no intarsia creations in the Stephenson shop. Instead he is finishing a metal cabinet and painting furniture with milk paint for a granddaughter.
"I might not ever do another one," he mused. But in just another breath he added, "I got this picture of a mountain lion jumping off of a cliff. Doing his head in relief -- sticking out that would be the hard part. It is a neat piece though."
For more information about intarsia, contact Stephenson at 474-3544.