PLANO, Texas—The inspiration came in 1983. The work began in 1988. In 2002, the local newspaper ran a story about the “almost completed” project.
But by 2011, friends were beginning to rib Russ Aikins about whether he’d ever complete his project: an elaborate woodcarving depicting the Sermon on the Mount.
“Oh, I knew he would finish,” said the Rev. Gary Mueller, who was pastor of Mr. Aikins’ church, First United Methodist Church of Plano, Texas. “I just did not know if I’d still be pastor when he did.”
Finally, on July 8, the carving was unveiled in its permanent home at the church. And as Mr. Aikins sees it, the project was done just in time—on God’s time.
“I feel that the carving took longer than I expected because I had to have certain life experiences to enable me to really listen to God and understand that God had a hand in this project,” he said.
Upper Room visit
In the summer of 1983, while traveling with an FUMC-Plano youth mission trip to West Virginia, Mr. Aikins visited the Upper Room in Nashville.
Two images made a special impression: the 17-foot wood carving of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in the Upper Room Chapel, and a print he found in the gift shop, an illustration of the Sermon on the Mount by Italian artist Fortunino Matania.
“I thought it would make an ideal carving,” Mr. Aikins said. Jesus’ teachings of the Beatitudes—from the Sermon on the Mount—is one of his favorite passages in the Bible, and Matania’s illustration pictured the scene almost exactly as Mr. Aikins had imagined it.
Mr. Aikins was looking for a carving project for his church. He studied woodcarving with a Bavarian master carver, Ludwig Keininger, who had a studio in Dallas, and over the years, Mr. Aikins has carved a number of pieces and won awards from the North Texas Wood Carvers Guild.
But work on the Sermon on the Mount project had to wait. Mr. Aikins was working as a sales manager, attending school and had other projects going. Plus, he and his wife, Sandra, were busy raising two teens.
About five years later—Mr. Aikins remembers the exact date, Aug. 8, 1988—he acquired four planks of northern basswood and glued them together, forming a single block.
Carefully and painstakingly, Mr. Aikins began to turn the block of wood into the scene from the illustration. He sketched the silhouette of Jesus and the crowd gathered on a hillside and began to carve away the background.
Nothing in the carving is pieced. Everything was created out of that single block of wood.
Bob Bontz, a fellow member of FUMC Plano, says that’s typical of Russ Aikins.
“Anything he does, he does it to perfection,” said Mr. Bontz. He noted that Mr. Aikins is also a talented musician who plays in the church’s praise band.
Mr. Aikins says he tallied the first 1,000 hours he worked on the carving— then stopped keeping track.
Years passed. The Aikins’ children grew up and left home. Mrs. Aikins’ parents both passed away, as did Mr. Aikins’ mother. Mrs. Aikins battled cancer.
Some years, Mr. Aikins did no work at all on the carving. Then, he’d pick it up again. Four years ago, he resumed in earnest, devoting every afternoon from noon to 5, working at the back of a violin shop owned by a friend of his.
“That’s when I was able to focus on getting the little details,” he said. “As I carved, I began to feel the hand of God guiding my mind.”
There was no specific plan, but one day, as he worked on the eye of one of figures in the crowd, Mr. Aikins suddenly knew he was finished.
“It struck me, ‘This is it, I’m done,’” he said.
After worship on July 8, more than 200 people gathered to see the work unveiled in the gathering area of First UMC Plano. When Mr. Mueller and Mr. Aikins pulled the black curtain aside to reveal the finished work, the crowd gasped, then burst into applause.
“It’s just breathtaking,” said Mr. Bontz.
“The depth and the work on the detail, it’s just amazing,” said Ann Schulik, a member of Christ UMC in Plano.
The final work is 4 feet by 2½ feet, and features 54 individual figures. Each person in the crowd has distinctive features. Some look amused, others look troubled. Most look mesmerized by Jesus, but two are whispering to each other.
All of the work was done by hand, and no sanding was involved. Mr. Aikins worked with about 170 different carving tools, some of which he made himself. The carving is so detailed that viewers see fingernails and toenails, the texture of beards and the folds of the clothing.
“The carving looks so real,” said Ann Gray, a member of FUMC Plano. “I’m just waiting to hear what Jesus is saying.”
Mr. Aikins has donated the piece to FUMC Plano, where it’ll remain on permanent display.
“There’s a spirit that that carving has, that just grabs people,” said Sandra Aikins. “We want as many people as possible to experience that.”
The Aikinses hope that many will also hear the message that Mr. Aikins believes God was whispering in his ear as he put on the final touches.
“The message is, if we would listen to what God has already told us, we would have a much better society and world,” he said.
He points to the variety of people in the crowd who listen to Jesus—young and old, men and women, humble shepherds and affluent citizens.
“The Sermon on the Mount is a message of love,” he said. “Look at the crowd. It’s a variety of people from all walks of life. Everyone was welcome.”
When work was finished Mr. Mueller was indeed still pastor of the church. But just 12 days after the unveiling, he was elected a bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Mueller will lead the Arkansas Conference, beginning Sept. 1.
Just a few months after he came to First UMC Plano in 2002, he led the first worship service in what was then the new building. Now, he’s happy to see the carving in its permanent home there.
“To see that beautiful piece of artwork in the church, which to me says, ‘This is who we are and this is what we’re about,’ it’s kind of a nice bookend,” Bishop Mueller said.
“It’s been emotional,” Mr. Aikins said. “I feel very humble about being the person that God created this through.”