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John Lamb, Published November 16 2012

Not just a stick

Fargo - Some may see old sticks and tree limbs along the river or in fields and shelterbelts as just that.

Chuck Sullivan sees dragons and crocodiles and bits of wonder in these discarded pieces of wood.

For two years, the north Fargo man has been fashioning increasingly elaborate walking sticks out of found timber.

“Anyone can make your run-of-the-mill walking stick. I make something different,” he explains in his basement workshop. “I look for more than just the plain Jane stick, something with some character.”

Sullivan walks to the two garbage bins he keeps packed with raw material, some as thin as a switch, others hefty slabs.

He pulls out one he calls his crocodile stick, and points to a section where a small, raised knot in the wood looks like an eye leading down a snout. Farther down, a similar, but fainter, pattern looks like a crocodile going underwater.

He pulls out two other pieces that invoke images of dragons’ heads.

All of these and more he’s found on one of his weekly casual walks away from trafficked areas.

“I’ve walked every foot on the North Dakota side of the Red River from Cass 20 to I-94,” Sullivan says, adding that he’ll also roam around friends’ and family’s farmsteads looking for inspiration.

He never brings one of his own sticks on a walk because he’s always looking for more material.

“To me, anything can be pretty,” he says. “I can find something mud-covered, insect-ridden and buried near the river. But I can make something pretty out of it.”

It all started two years ago when Sullivan was at a Boy Scout camp with his son Matthew. One of their activities was to make a walking stick. Sullivan liked the project so much he made one for himself. When they got home, his other son, Michael, wanted one, so Sullivan made another.

“I just found such enjoyment and creativity out of it. I’ve always had a creative interest but didn’t have a focus,” he says.

The creativity comes as much from the found object as from Sullivan.

“I know it’s going to be something special, I just don’t know what it will be,” he says. “Eventually, it will let me know what it wants to be.”

After he gets a feel for what it should be, he’ll strip the bark off, sand it, and carve or gouge it if needed.

Sullivan used to just stain the wood and give it a clear, protective coat of polyurethane, but he’s taken to making them more decorative. Some he’s embellished with rocks; others he’s dripped paint over or bound in leather straps for a handle.

He doesn’t sell the walking sticks but gives them away to friends and often makes specific ones for family.

His sister Thea’s husband, Thane, wanted one to bring to a powwow and gave Sullivan a piece of wood from his land and red sand from a sacred beach from his Ojibwa tribe near Grand Portage, Minn.

Sullivan fixed the sand, the reservation’s logo and some other decorations to the staff and presented it to Thane, who brought it to the powwow.

“He told me he couldn’t walk more than 50 feet without people asking where he got that stick,” Sullivan recalls.

“We got nothing but beautiful responses,” says his sister, Thea Zimmerman. “He’s phenomenal. He’s got some talent.”

“I used stuff that was personal to him and that’s what I like to do,” Sullivan says. “If I’m going to make something for someone, it has to be personalized to them.”

He even made a family album stick, gluing copies of family pictures to two straighter staves, preserving images of the kids as they grew up, and their late grandmother.

“I got so many different ideas for things I want to do, it’s becomes a kind of obsession,” Sullivan says. “But I’ve only got so much time and so much space.”

His hobby is a welcome respite from his job as a police officer for the past 22 years.

“Police work can be very stressful. They tell you to never bring your job home,” he says. “To me, it’s so important to have an outlet to deal with it. It’s so calming. … I look at things so much differently now. I feel like I lit a fire. I hope it never goes out and I don’t think it will.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533