Stacyville’s Tom Pitzen is not only quite talented, he is quite generous.
The nationally and world-reknowned wood carver and artist, who has won international awards for his work over the past four decades, recently carved a special owl worth several thousand dollars which will be raffled off to benefit the Mitchell County Food Bank.
“I was inspired by all the things Leo Chisholm does to help people in need. He is involved with the Memorial Foundation, the hospital, Relay for Life and the Mitchell County Food Bank, so I decided to do something to give back to the community myself,” said Pitzen, who was at the Mitchell County Historical Museum at the Cedar River Complex last Friday displaying his unique creation. “I picked the food bank because a lot of people are going to need help this coming winter.”
The saw-whet owl that will be raffled is carved out of jelutong, an imported wood from Malaysia, and similar works have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Pitzen’s creation will be on display at the museum in Osage, as well as on a rotating schedule all the banks in Mitchell County before the winner is announced on Dec. 30.
“It’s like getting a Picasso,” said Mitchell County Food Bank coordinator Leo Chisholm. “Someone is going to end up with a valuable work of art.”
As for Chisholm, he is hoping the Food Bank will sell $4,000 to $5,000 worth of tickets, which are now available at the museum and at all Mitchell County Banks, as well as from Chisholm himself.
Price for the raffle tickets are $5 each or six for $25. All proceeds will go to feed needy families in Mitchell County.
“We have already served 1,772 people at the food bank this year,” said Chisholm. “So the proceeds from this great work of art will come in mighty handy, especially during the upcoming holiday season.”
As for those who are not familiar with Pitzen’s world-class wildlife carvings, several of them are currently on display at the museum in Osage, along with newspaper clippings, books, programs and other memorabilia that commemerate is talent for carving wildlife, especially birds.
One of his works was featured on the front page of the Des Moines Register Sunday Picture magazine in 1979, just months after he won best of show in the U.S National Decoy Contest.
That same year, Pitzen took entered the International Wood-carvers Congress in Davenport and won first place. He then went on to win a first place at the World Championships in Woodcarving in Salisbury, MD.
Pitzen said it has been nearly 30 years since he was actively showing his wildlife carvings at national shows. But even today, viewers of his work look on with much admiration and amazement at his realistic works of wildlife.
He has spent countless hours, days, weeks, months and even years on his carvings, making them virtually lifelike in shape, texture and colors.
“I started fiddling around with a knife when I was just in first grade making little toys,” said Pitzen, who graduated from Stacyville High School in 1955. “I had a brother a few years older than I, and I would carve out little trucks, bulldozers and things for us to play with in the sandpile. If we needed to play cowboys, I’d quickly carve a gun. I still have scars from sawing up old orange crates to use the lathes for carving wood.”
Pitzen eventually moved up to model airplanes, bookends and cartoon caricatures in his carving adventure, taking first place in a school competition making a set of pistols with a coping saw. He used wood from crates he acquired at the grocery store down the street.
“My first attempt at people was figurines of a little German band. I saw them in a picture in an ad. They turned out pretty good and I was hooked on carving,” said Pitzen. “I ordered a subscription from a wood carver catalog in Maine and usually ended up trying nearly every pattern in their latest issue.”
Tom’s father, Sy Pitzen, had a shop in Stacyville, but instead of woodworking, his real passion was taxidermy.
“That shop, combined with loads of carving magazines I received in the mail, started me doing woodcarvings of wildlife, especially birds,” recalled Pitzen. “Then I attended an International Decoy Contest and there I saw the most fabulous duck decoy carvings I had ever seen.”
By the late 1970s, Pitzen making my own wood decoys and bird carvings and entered the International Wood-carvers Congress in Davenport.
“I won first place there, then went on to win a first place at the World Championships in Woodcarving in Salisbury, MD and also the International Congress,” said Pitzen. “One of my prize decoys was chosen as part of a still life grouping in the 1983 Ducks Unlimited painting.
“I was always surprised every time I would win an award, because from what I would see at shows and what they would show in the carving catalogs done by other wildlife carvers looked really great to me,” said Pitzen.
For his wildlife carvings, Pitzen sais he mainly uses a basic set of six carving tools. His favorite wood is jelutong, which is hard, yet easy to carve on.
“To do a good wildlife bird, I would study the real thing, either on a picture or from an actual taxidermy bird my father had,” said Pitzen. “I got to know every inch of it before I began cutting. This was never something I felt I had to do, I just enjoyed making each carving as realistic as I could.”
One of Pitzen’s favorite works, and also quite popular, is a pheasant family which includes a rooster, hen and their chicks. It won second place in a national competition.
“After so many carved pieces, I eventually sold some to collectors who I knew really wanted them and appreciated them,” said Pitzen. “I heard recently one of my pieces was on an auction at Sotheby’s Auction House as part of collection owned by a wealthy Colorado businessman, hunter and collector. Apparently, he was selling part of his collection - and that was kind of neat to hear about.”
Along with the owl carving for the Mitchell County Food Bank, Pitzen has also thrown in a decoy duck he carved for a second place winner.
“I still carve - maybe not as much as I used to - but when I do, I thought it would be nice to make it something that benefits others,” said Pitzen. “It’s a lifelong hobby that I will probably never stop doing.”