Museum of Woodcarving
Shell Lake, Wisconsin
"You feel like you're walking through a wood-en Bible."
That's how Maria McKay describes the Museum of Woodcarving. She displays the divinely inspired work of her uncle, wood sculptor Joseph T. Barta, in this wooded fishermen's -- or Fishers of Men -- country. It is the largest collection of woodcarvings in the world created by one man - 100 life-sized carvings and 400 miniatures. Barta spent 15 years crafting his series of religious scenes in ponderosa and sugar pine 2x4s laminated together.
"He made all his own glue," Maria tells us, awestruck.
The museum is stark and clean. Joe's sculptures stand on gray wall-to-wall carpeting against blank white walls, illuminated by dim track lighting. Modern and no-nonsense, like the interior of early '70s Presbyterian churches. Starting with the banishment of Adam and Eve , scenes from the Bible are revealed chronologically. The sculptures are impressive but roughhewn, with oddly chiseled topography in the pale wood, somewhere on the finesse scale between a Rodin and a chainsaw Bigfoot.
A lifelong bachelor, Barta taught math and phys ed in Spooner, WI, in the 1940s. The carving museum was started in 1951. His inspiration came from a series of revelations: a vision of Mary, Queen of the Universe; dreams in which God spoke to him and told him what to do; a disembodied voice with a German accent gave him the go ahead on the Last Supper. That one took four and a half years. The brochure notes that Joe's Last Supper "will outlast DaVinci's delicate painting, as it is flaking off the walls in Milan, Italy."
Barta died in 1972 at age 68; Maria is the keeper of the collection now. She sends us down the long silent procession. Pennies litter the floor around Daniel's wooden feet in the sunken pit of the lion's den. Herod waves a wooden baby over his sword. A wooden Judas dangles from a real noose. Barta's interpretation of the Bible strays from the literal at times - for example, a midget and the Devil taunt Jesus on the cross.
For a while, the entire museum moved to Kissimmee, Florida, and the Disney World epicenter. Its "Last Supper" exhibit was a popular panorama-style postcard. It's back here in Shell Lake to stay; you can mail a wooden Last Supper postcard from this "monument to a man's genius and love of God."