Woodcarver Sean Cudney figures it was a force beyond our understanding that brought him to Durango to work on a particular piece that holds special importance to him.
Clark Cunningham, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4031 for almost 50 years, concurs.
About a year ago, Cunningham went to Purgatory Resort looking to find a woodcarver to turn the trunk of an old juniper in front of Post 4031 into a carving of a sentry.
Carve Wars, a woodcarving competition, was being held at Purgatory, and Cunningham wanted to check out the carvings to find his artist. But he arrived too late. All he found were finished carvings and piles of sawdust between puddles left behind by a passing storm. Buried in sawdust in one pile he found a business card. It was Cudney’s.
“There’s a reason why things happen that we can’t explain. Somebody greater than us has a reason for everything,” Cudney said of the fortuitous quirk of fate that linked him to Cunningham and Post 4031.
Cunningham gave Cudney a call, beginning the relationship that will leave the post with its new carving, which the post intends to title either “The Sentinel” or “The Guard.”
“He asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, I want a sentry-type of soldier standing there to protect the building,” Cunningham said. “And also, you know, to relay the idea that the military is on guard all the time. I spent 31 months in Berlin when they built the wall, so I have an idea how important the military is. Then he started telling me about his brother.”
Cudney was immediately attracted to the project and agreed to do it, even after Cunningham informed him Post 4031 couldn’t pay the normal rate he’d get for such an intricate work.
Cudney, who lives near Logan, Utah, simply asked if the VFW could help cover his expenses. He wanted to carve the sentry in honor of his younger brother, Devin Seth Cudney.
Beginning in 2001, Cudney’s younger brother served three tours of duty that took him to Haiti, Japan and South Korea. His final tour was in Iraq, where he served in Fallujah during some of the bloodiest fighting.
“He came back with bugs in his gut. He couldn’t eat certain foods,” Sean Cudney said.
His younger brother also came back suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Quentin Cudney, Sean and Devin’s father, said the family doesn’t like to talk a lot about Devin’s experience during his tours of duty.
“He rarely talked about it, and we like to honor that. We don’t think we should, either,” Quentin said.
But Sean Cudney will say his brother conveyed stories of being in gunbattles with militiamen who would have been in the seventh grade in a more peaceful time.
Cudney is dedicating his work on Post 4031’s new sentry to his younger brother, who eventually died by suicide on June 9, 2010, in Pocatello, Idaho, where he was a student at Idaho State University. Cudney said his brother’s body was discovered dressed in his Marine blue dress formal uniform.
Honoring Devin is why Cudney is so eager to work on the statue that will form the latest addition to Post 4031.
The post has been upgrading for more than a year now. A recently completed basement remodel allows the VFW to offer a nice rental space with a commercial-grade kitchen. Durango’s Veterans Breakfasts are now held there from 9 to 11 a.m. each Sunday.
Joe Wenal, who served in the Army from 2000 to 2004 and is an organizer of Carve Wars, is helping Cudney with the carving.
“My dad was in the Army. I was in the Army. So we know what it entails. So it’s nice doing this for the VFW because you know those guys will appreciate it every time they’re there. It’s just kind of like a memorial piece,” he said.
Cudney said, “Once I get moving, it just starts putting itself together.”
The hardest part of carving is getting the rough shape and silhouette of the piece sized correctly, he said: “If I make a mistake now, I’ll be fighting it the whole time.”
The juniper, which had to be killed because it had grown so big it was putting a load on the roof during snowstorms, has a unique characteristic that pleased Cudney – it was wider at the top than at the bottom.
“That’s real rare. I’ll be able to get the shoulders in,” he said.
After debarking and getting the rough shape formed using chain saws, finer tools are used to fill in the details, said Cudney, who has been working with wood for 20 years, but “only seriously” the last 10.
Cudney is expanding to create statues in bronze.
Wood, he said, can be more difficult to work with.
“With wood, it’s a process of elimination. In a foundry you can make a lot of mistakes and fix it. Here, not so much,” he said.
Currently, Cudney said he’s working “to develop his eye” to help him scope out proportions and to get a sense of how he’ll shape the raw material he’ll be working with.
Last week, Cudney was eyeing the remaining portion of the juniper’s trunk, breaking it into one-eighth segments in his mind – the size based on the human head.
Every person’s body can basically be broken down into segments of eight based on the size of their head, he said. “I’ve done a lot of bears. That’s easy-peasy. But something like this, this is way more important.”