April 22 06:41 AM

Capac Chief emerges from tree

Resident artist creates noble Native American from gnarly box elder

July 28, 2010
CAPAC — A couple of weeks ago, Sarah Kriesch noticed something different during her daily trip to the post office.

The 92-year-old Neeper Street resident has made the walk down the tree-lined streets for years. One day, she sees the face of a noble warrior in one of the trees.

Sarah isn't seeing things. There is, indeed, the face of a noble Indian chief emerging from the twisted bark of a gnarly old box elder tree in front of Ron Leigh's house. It seems the artist has known for quite some time that the handsome brave was in there all along, just waiting to reveal his true nature.

Living art

At 62 years old, Ron Leigh has accumulated a lifetime of reverence and respect for Native Americans.

And for him, it's no small coincidence that he's spent the past 28 years in a village that was named after an Indian chief—even if he was an Aztec Indian.

Artist Ron Leigh of Capac with his latest work in progress outside of his Neeper St. home. photo by Catherine Minolli.

Leigh says he almost couldn't help creating the sculpture—which is a work in progress—for a couple of different reasons.

First, he saw that face in that tree for years. Leigh would sit out on his front porch and chide himself a bit— "when are you going to do that," he ask, referring to setting his vision free.

Second, Leigh wants to set an example; to re-align reality when it comes to depictions of Native Americans.

"This may be somewhat sensitive but I really got sick and tired of seeing depictions of Native Americans done with huge, large, grotesque noses and distorted features to where they really looked ugly," Leigh says.

"That paid no respect to the true Americans in our culture," he continues, "and I wanted to create a Native American with the traditional features of Indians—as we'll call them—but preserve the ethnic and cultural heritage of those features of the tribes that migrated from Asia down through North American and settled into the United States."

The result? A face that has high cheek bones, strong features and is viewed as handsome by Western standards.

"The goal is to make a very proud looking, regal chief, to set an example and to restore respect, honor and dignity, to be careful with the features."

Life of Art

Though the goal sounds lofty, for Ron Leigh it's a calling.

From the time he was a boy Leigh knew he had to create art.

Though he graduated from U of M with a degree in social work, Leigh spent a lifetime using his artistic talents to make a living. He recently retired from his business, Imlay City Signs, though his artistic touches in the community remain.

Leigh's hand-carved signs can be seen at Dr. Young's office, Kempf's Florist, Chick's Barber Shop and the Imlay City Historical Museum among others.

"No power tools have touched those signs," Leigh says with a laugh. "They're all hand carved and done in gold leaf lettering."

He says the economic downturn, change in the business and a quadruple bypass prompted him to take a second look at his future.

"The economy came crashing down, nobody was spending any money and everyone was struggling," he says. "Coupled with my health I felt it was time to pull the plug."

Leigh says he's feeling better than he has in years, and his artistic nature has been reinvigorated by having time to put his carving tools to wood.

"Art is a gift from God that gladdens the hearts of men," he says. "We live in a society and culture where we have minimized the importance of the arts. All we care about in our corporate culture and civilization is the bottom line. If I can create something that makes somebody feel good and they like it, it makes (creating) it enjoyable."

'Hearts gladdened'

Though Leigh's noble Indian chief is far from complete, the work already has people feeling good. A classroom full of Capac Middle School 6th graders have examined the piece, and Capac residents Sarah Kriesch and Geraldine Schwartzkopf called the paper to comment about it.

"The minute I noticed it I wondered how many people knew about it and wanted to let people know about the beautiful sculpting job someone did," Sarah says. "You can see the fine work on the face."

Geraldine agrees.

"It's amazing," she says. "I was surprised to see it in a tree that's marked to come down. It's a great piece of work."

Second life

Though it's true that the box elder has been X-ed for removal by the DPW, Leigh says village officials have agreed to just take the top off until the work is complete.

After he carves in the headdress and finishes the sculpture it will be removed and placed on a permanent base.

Leigh is also working on a second project on a large scale. He's planning to unveil the Virgin Mary from a huge piece of a 70-year-old maple tree.

"My zest and zeal and outlook on life is greater than it was because I've been carving," he says.

Leigh and his wife Carolyn raised two kids in Capac. Son Paul lives in Florida where he's a hair stylist and makeup artist to the stars. Daughter Christina is a registered nurse and lives in Taylor, Michigan.

Cruising along

Visitors to the 30th Annual Blueberry Festival on Saturday, August 6 may recognize Leigh at the Blueberry Cruisers Classic Car Show. As one of the organizers, Leigh will help car buffs and festival-goers chill out to cool sounds and take in the hot cars at the show. Stop by the Lamb-Steele Building parking lot at the corner of M-53 and Third St. in Imlay City.

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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