A few decades ago, a young man and his friends often enjoyed sitting at a bar in Radisson, Wisc., and having a beer after finishing a day’s work at the nearby sawmill.
As they did, the young man would frequently take notice of a carved wooden fish mounted on the wall above the bar. He eventually told his friends, “some day I’m going to learn how to do that.”
So began the woodcarving saga of Russ Biros, now a resident of western Texas County.
Although he is still passionate about carving, there was a time when Biros was near the pinnacle of the field, and from 1992 to 2004 he competed regularly in fish-carving events that pitted his skills against the world’s best. While he came close to reaching the very peak of the fish-carving mountain, he never managed to earn top honors.
“At one time I was attempting to win the world fish-carving championship,” Biros said, “and I worked and worked and worked at it. But as I advanced to the point where I was getting close, I realized it was more politics than skill at the very top. So I quit doing that.”
Not that Biros didn’t get some recognition at the highest level. At world championship events sponsored by the National Fish Carvers Guild and Breakthrough magazine, he took second place in the intermediate class in 2002, and then finished third in open competition in 2004.
The ’04 event was Biros’ last appearance in a top-tier fish-carving competition.
“It gets very clique-ish at that level,” Biros said. “Part of the reason for that is what you can sell your carvings for afterward. If you win your division at the world championships, you can maybe sell your carving for $10,000. If that same carving wins best-in-show – which is the world championship – it’s now worth 25 or 30-thousand dollars.
“You can imagine that the people who are up there are a little jealous. They all make their living at it because they’re all professional carvers at that level. You can either join them and put up with them, or back out of it. I backed out.”
While he was focused on competing, Biros collected dozens of ribbons, many of which are blue. Most now hang in bunches in his workshop.
“For a while they’re sort of an affirmation that you’re getting somewhere with your carving, but then you get tired of them and say, ‘OK, I know what I can do and how I stack up with other carvers,'” Biros said. “But if you go down to the coffee shop in the morning and show them your ribbons, it still costs you a buck for a cup of coffee.”
As recently as earlier this year, Biros’ work was still being recognized, as a carving he did of a pair of white bass was featured on the cover of the January/February issue of Chip Chats Magazine, a publication of the National Wood Carvers Association.
Biros came to the Plato area eight years ago to escape the state’s high taxes and cold winters. He grew up in Cumberland, Wisc., a community with both Norwegian and Italian ancestry and influence.
“We had good food and good art,” he said. “The perfect combination.”
Biros’ foray into carving as a full-time occupation began when a factory he worked in was purchased by overseas ownership and all the existing employees were let go. He named his business “Silverwood,” since he and his wife Joanne were at the time living on Silver Lake in Wisconsin, and his current business cards still bear that name, and he and JoAnne are still together.
To some extent a self-taught carver, Biros did attend classes for four years taught by nationally known fish and turkey call carver Dave Constantine (of Durand, Wisc.), the National Wild Turkey Federation decorative turkey call grand champion for many years running.
Biros, who had an art studio in Wisconsin, did some teaching, too, sharing his wood carving talent for 15 years, with students ranging from beginner through advanced.
After carving fish for many years, Biros shifted his focus to working in more artistic Norwegian carving styles.
“When I got tired of doing fish and tired of the political part of it, I just wanted to carve art and do something that was purely decorative,” Biros said.
He took a class from a Wisconsin couple well versed in Norwegian carving; the female half was from Norway and the man went there and learned Norwegian woodcarving.
The change from fish to Norwegian style carving led Biros – of Czech decent – to become proficient in producing ornate bent wood tine boxes (pronounced “tina”) with intricate patterns styled after items made thousands of years ago, the likes of which have sometimes been found in Viking shipwrecks.
“They were a very common box used in the Scandinavian countries,” Biros said. “The highly decorated ones were bride’s boxes, dowry boxes, or sewing boxes, but plain ones were also used as lunch boxes. They were used for everything.”
Unlike most other Norwegian-style woodcarving artists who follow existing patterns, Biros draws his own unique patterns. “Dragon style” is a well-known Norwegian woodcarving style, and Biros is one of only a few artists who can draw patterns for it.
In addition to tine boxes, Biros carves accurate reproductions of mangle boards, which were used to flatten and smooth linens and fabrics, like modern day irons. Carved from patterns he drew himself, Biros has several finished boards done in Acanthus style, an ancient Greek style that more or less migrated across Europe and was eventually adopted by Norwegian carvers.
While Biros has worked over the years with many types of wood, top-quality fish carvings are usually done using northern basswood, a tree that grows in northern latitudes like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and upstate New York. When carving other objects, Biros uses woods including cherry and buckeye from Missouri, and butternut from Wisconsin. One of his current projects is a decorative cherry wood spoon that clearly displays his attention to detail.
“Northern basswood is the premier type of wood used in all wildlife carving,” Biros said. “But I use more buckeye now because I have a lot of it. I have my own little sawmill and saw it, dry it, and then turn it into something. It’s sort of a complete circle – I enjoy that.”
Some of the work Biros has done requires a deep level of patience. A single steelhead or muskellunge might require carving literally thousands of perfectly proportioned scales.
“You have to put each scale on individually,” Biros said. “I probably have 300 hours in some of the fish I’ve done. And a tine box – it probably takes me a couple of weeks to do something like that.”
Biros uses dozens of different carving tools to produce his intricate designs, most of which are manufactured in Switzerland. Some hard woods might require using specialized tools, but for the most part, the same ones are adequate for all types of wood.
Biros said the Swiss-made gear is best because it doesn’t require much attention and holds and edge for a long time.
“I have a few German ones, but you don’t have to sharpen the Swiss ones very often at all,” he said. “You buff them constantly, but you don’t have to put them on a stone very often. And you need different tools to cut the different contours – like when you’re doing something in Acanthus style – so you end up with an infinite variety of tools.
“It might take 20 or 30 tools just to do one carving.”
Much of the work Biros did over the years was commissioned by people who contacted him through word-of-mouth.
“I used to work like crazy and take commissions all the time,” he said. “This time of year I’d be swamped with Christmas stuff.”
While fish carving and Norwegian art styling have been Biros’ main focus throughout his career, he also restores and builds wooden furniture and has carved turkey calls and miniature wild turkeys. When dealing with furniture, he often uses oak.
“When I do antique furniture restoration, a lot of it has decorative carving on it,” Biros said. “If pieces are missing, I’ll reproduce those and that’s usually done in oak.
“That type of work can get pretty expensive for the person having it done. They need to need it real bad.”
After coming to the Ozarks, Biros became active in displaying his wares at regional wood carving shows in many locations, including Mountain Home and Benton, Ark., Belleville, Ill., and Kansas City. But lately he has been cutting back on those kinds of shows and dealing more with art-oriented shows. In turn, some of Biros’ work was recently on display at an art show in Houston, and is currently displayed at a month-long show at the Texas County Museum of Art and History in Licking. He is a member of the art museum and of Spring Creek Artisans in Salem.
“Since I’ve gotten away from fish carving and gotten more into the Norwegian style carving, I’ve done fairly well at the art-type shows,” Biros said. “But I still usually carve about a fish a year, just to keep my hand in it.”
Early next year, Biros will be submitting an application to The Best of Missouri Hands, an organization based in Columbia that represents Show-Me artists. A handful of other local artists have earned membership, but being accepted into the exclusive group isn’t easy.
“It’s hard to get juried in,” Biros said. “But once you’re in, there are some benefits with a lot of shows and prestigious stature. It’s all about name.”
He is also working on getting gold-medal certified at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, the premier location for Norwegian-style artwork in the U.S.
Earning gold medal standing requires scoring enough points in competition at the museum’s annual festival in July. So far, Biros has two of the necessary eight points.
“It’s very, very difficult,” he said. “Their standards are extremely high. But if you get your gold medal, you know you’re a master.”
To commission Biros to do a carving, contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.