Preserving the Past, Carving the Present

From wood and snow, John Zipprich shapes a life

By Drew Myron

John Zipprich sees in subtraction.

Photo by Drew Myron

“There are two way to sculpt: add or subtract. You either build it up or take it away,” says the accomplished Pine Grove artist, who sculpts in both wood and snow. “We carve out what we don’t want. That’s how I carve.”

A self-taught artist, John calls himself a woodcarver for hire, but his humility belies his prolific output. Over a span of 50 years, John has created hundreds of works that dot the Pacific Northwest.

His large-scale woodcarvings depict Western scenes of mountains, rivers, streams and wildlife. These one-of-a-kind works carved from pine, fir, juniper, cedar and other woods hang in local restaurants, libraries, a national forest and numerous private homes. His commercial pieces include signs for restaurants, bars, bed-and-breakfasts, roadways and a lumber company.

John’s most notable work, however, does not bear his name.

At Timberline Lodge, John preserves the past. For decades, he has restored, reproduced and repaired furniture, carvings and signage that decorate this National Historic Landmark on Mount Hood.

Timberline Lodge was built at 5,960 feet during the Depression as part of a sweeping Works Progress Administration project. In the 1930s, artists working in paint, wood, stone, iron and textiles combined their efforts to create one of America’s first ski lodges. One of Oregon’s most popular attractions, Timberline Lodge hosts 2 million visitors annually.

John carves in his studio in Pine Grove. Photo by Drew Myron

The lodge is a living museum of art, craft and history, nestled in a stunning but often harsh, weather-worn environment. Main- taining and preserving the lodge is a full-time job, according to Linny Adamson, the curator who oversees preservation of the facility.

“The weather here is extreme,” she says. “A team of artists and tradespeople help preserve the historic fabric of the lodge. Preserving original materials ensures the significance as a National Historic Landmark.”
Linny has worked with John for nearly 50 years. John worked on staff as a maintenance man for many years, charged with repairing the lodge’s historic furniture.

“I admire Zippy,” Linny says. “He grew up in the trees. He’s self-taught, and he’s made a way of life out of carving.”

John’s snow sculpture “Improbable Juxtapositions” combines a seashell and wrench. Photos by John Zipprich

Recently, John remade life-size ram and buffalo head corbels installed at the lodge’s main entrance. In 2009, he recreated one of Timberline Lodge’s most prominent carvings: a 15-foot-by-3-foot lintel above the upper front entrance.

The thunderbird design features mountains below the wings of the bird. Due to time and the mountain’s harsh alpine conditions, the piece had disintegrated. Carved from a massive slab of Douglas fir, the stately bird now stands again above the front door.

John’s skill of subtraction is also applied to a more temporary form of art: snow carving. For more than 30 years, he has traveled the world to compete in snow-carving competitions. Since 1990, he has amassed medals from Russia, Japan, Finland and the United States. Last winter, his team won first place in the Idaho Snow Sculpture competition in McCall.

Carved from a block of snow measuring 8 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet, John’s winning design, “Improbable Juxtapositions,” featured a wrench and seashell nestled together.

“The whole idea of snow sculpture is to have suspended weight, held together only through frozen snow, so the colder the better,” John says. “Because of the unsupported areas, these large sculptures can be fragile. You gotta push the edge. The more suspended weight, the more interesting.”

Snow carvings are created in teams of three to four people, over 3 to 4 days. All carving is done by hand—no power tools allowed—from blocks of packed snow that tower 8 to 12 feet tall. Prior to the event, teams spend months creating designs and models to test form and function. All designs must be original, and cannot be reused in future competitions.

The iconic sheep heads at Timberline Lodge are among the many restorations John Zipprich has created for the historic land- mark on Mount Hood.

John’s recent work was a matter of personal preference.

“The elements of the design, a wrench and a shell, have no relationship to each other,” he says. “I just liked the shapes, the mix of industrial and natural.”

John got involved in the sport when some pals in Government Camp invited him to join their team.

“It was a bunch of drunk yahoos looking for more talented yahoos,” says John, erupting in a bellowing laugh.
Born in Los Gatos, California, John grew up in Welches at the western foot of Mount Hood. In 1992, he made his home in Pine Grove. He renovated the place to include home and garage studios, along with room to raise his son, Dennis, and daughter, Amber.

John is planning for the World Snow Sculpting Championship in January 2024. Teams from around the world will travel to Stillwater, Minnesota, to compete for prize money and the title of world champion.