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Carving Rivers from Wood

Sep 10, 2023

Rivers constantly change, their ebbing and flowing slowly yet steadily transforming the landscapes over time. Artist Chris Haggerty tries to capture that complexity in stagnant pieces that hang on the walls.

Sifting through wooden slabs once destined for landfills, Haggerty can see the outline of a river beginning to take shape. Using the natural edges of trees, he combines the wood pieces with sand and rocks for texture and resin to create a sense of movement for the water. Because Haggerty uses so many natural elements in his art, no two pieces turn out the same.

Haggerty has always thought of himself as an outdoorsy guy. But his love for rivers solidified during his time in the Navy. On the rare occasion he had a few days off, Haggerty and his wife would drive to the mountains near Lexington, Va., to visit the Maury River. No matter how many times he visited Goshen Pass, a 3.7-mile gorge on the river, it never got old.

A river can symbolize something different for anyone—life and death, power and safety, relaxation, and even boundaries. For Haggerty, a river is a reminder that life goes on. "It doesn't matter what gets in the river's way; it doesn't stop just because there are obstacles," he said. "It finds a way around and keeps going."

"It doesn't matter what gets in the river's way; it doesn't stop just because there are obstacles."

Ahead of making commissioned pieces, Haggerty enjoys talking with clients about their own vision of a river. Details like the size and color scheme of a room are carefully considered as he draws up his plans. His goal is to create statement pieces, wall hangings that a room can be built around. Haggerty's proud that the biggest complaint he's received so far about his work is that a client wishes she’d gone with the bigger option.

Creating river art was not where Haggerty originally saw himself headed in life. Other than doodling stick figures on random things, playing guitar, and writing some music, art was never something he was interested in pursuing. "I kind of fell into art," he said. "I didn't study art. I couldn't tell you about any other artists. I just know that what I create I’m in love with doing."

After his stint in the Navy, Haggerty settled on Long Island near the rest of his family. It didn't take long for him to realize the high-powered job with a great salary he’d landed was completely consuming his life. Working 12-hour shifts five to seven days a week left him with little time to spend with his family. Plus, pressure caused by the high cost of living in New York, Haggerty says, forced him into a dark place mentally.

While scrolling through Instagram, he started to see more people in his feed working with wood. Needing something to do with his hands, Haggerty made his first beach scene using wood, resin, and a few found shells. He then realized creating art was what he’d been missing in his life. "That dark space I was in disappeared while I was doing it," Haggerty said. "I didn't know how to make this work, but I knew that this is what I needed to do."

"I didn't know how to make this work, but I knew that this is what I needed to do."

Eventually, Haggerty quit his full-time job and, after a series of chance encounters, decided to resettle with his family just outside of Greenville, S.C. In his new hometown he has been able to fill his days by spending time with his kids and visiting many of the South's diverse rivers. And he's found a balance in his life with an outlet for his creative energy.

In his workshop, Haggerty finds the peacefulness and inspiration he feels when visiting a river is present as he works on a piece. Laying down the riverbed is an intuitive practice. Sometimes everything fits together quickly; other times making sure it looks natural can be the longest part of the process. "It's this cathartic thing," Haggerty said. "It tells me where to put the stuff as I’m doing it."

While he's created everything from business signs to furniture, Haggerty gets the most enjoyment out of creating the hanging wall art depicting a river scene. A large 30-inch by 60-inch piece he recently completed now hangs on the wall of his workshop as a reminder of what this work means to him. "Everybody gets imposter syndrome, and it happens to me too," Haggerty said. "No matter how busy or slow work is, that can creep in. But ever since I’ve had that big piece hanging on the wall, it's like no, I can do that."

You can find more of Haggerty's work at or on Instagram @chrishaggertyart.

Cover Photo: Artist Chris Haggerty, with one of his carved creations. Photo Courtesy of Haggerty