Is that a bear traipsing through the yard? Or a red-tailed hawk swooping in to seize its prey? Look a little closer, because Lueb Popoff’s ultra-realistic woodcarvings are so lifelike, they’re frequently mistaken for the real thing. “I strive for realism without being a fanatic about it,” he says modestly.
Maybe he’s not fanatical, but he’s definitely meticulous. To ensure he captures every detail, Lueb researches not only what his subjects look like, but also their behavior in the wild.
“The internet is a great resource, of course, but I use a lot of nature books. I look at photos from various angles to get a true sense of an animal’s personality; how it sits, stands and moves. I strive to bring out its attitude.”
This level of study may be a by-product of his upbringing. Though at the age of eight a teacher encouraged his parents to enroll him in the Art Institute of Chicago, Lueb felt called to pursue a different career path.
“I wasn’t breathing when I was born, and after weeks of being on a resuscitator, a priest came to the hospital to bless me with holy water. My lungs opened up, I began to cry and suddenly I was functioning on my own,” he shares. “Growing up with that story, I felt that becoming a doctor would be a meaningful way to give back in this life. But after I got my undergrad in molecular biology, I was burned out on the academic world. I needed a break."
“My other passion in life was cooking, so I pursued that and studied with French chefs,” Lueb continues. “It was my career for nearly 20 years. Then my hobby as a woodcarver slowly took over, and in 2000, it became my job. The transitions seem pretty extreme — molecular biology, cooking and carving are certainly three different worlds — but the common thread is that there has always been a creative component to whatever I’ve done.”
It’s obvious from Lueb’s work that nature is what inspires him now, and living in a 100-year-old log cabin poised on 35 acres in the foothills of the Rockies with his wife Annie, inspiration is abundant.
“We frequently see fox, coyotes and bears; eagles, osprey and hawks flying down to scoop up a ground squirrel. We see it all,” he says.
From the carving to the painting, Lueb executes 100 percent of each piece himself.
“Sometimes I get inquiries from people who have seen my website wanting to know if I have people in Texas or Connecticut. I don’t have an army of woodcarvers set up all over the country,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s only one carver, and that’s me.”
Working solo and being this talented keeps Lueb quite busy. In addition to carving 50 to 60 smaller, detached pieces each year, he also works on an average of 25 onsite carvings in the greater Boulder, Colorado, area annually.
“I like to keep my onsite work to within an 80-mile radius of where I live. With the unpredictability of weather and the cost to ship the equipment I need, traveling farther doesn’t make sense,” he explains.
For an onsite project, Lueb says that just about any kind of tree species will work for a sculpture.
“Over years of doing this, I haven’t been able to pinpoint one type of tree as being better in terms of carve-ability or longevity,” he says.
“With my birds of prey, dogs, cats and songbirds — those kinds of higher-quality, more detailed carvings — I prefer to work with tupelo wood that I get from North Carolina or laminated basswood. These are great for carving because they aren’t heavy, they’re more uniform in their grain patterns and there are no knots. They aren’t real beautiful as a raw wood like a black walnut or mahogany would be, but they hold detail really well, which makes them desirable,” he says.
Lueb wields a regular chainsaw to rough out large pieces, but for the smaller stuff and finer details, he uses a hand-held angle grinder with a Lancelot carving disk (a 4 ½-inch wheel with chainsaw teeth) before using mallets and gouges to refine the carving. Airbrushing with acrylic stains and implanting museum-quality glass eyes intensify the realism.
“They bring out the attitude and personality of an animal,” he says.
So how long does it take Lueb to carve one of his natural wonders?
“Providing it isn’t in attack or landing mode with its wings outstretched, a bird of prey is a few weeks of work from start to finish,” he says. “I tell people feathers cost more than fur because of the level of detail. You can fuzz up a bear or a squirrel easily; feathers are a different story. But birds of prey are among the most fun for me to carve. Creating something out of wood that has a sleekness and a lightness; trying to carve feathers that don’t look heavy … it’s an ongoing challenge I enjoy, even if they do take a lot of time.”
In the end, time spent on a piece is irrelevant to Lueb, because he truly loves what he does — and that passion is evident in each of his exquisite works of art.
“When I’m in a neighborhood carving a tree, some people will approach me when they see me high on life and loving what I’m doing. I’ll stop and talk with them, and they’ll say things like, ‘I really envy you. You are doing something you love. I’ve been going to the same job for 40 years.’ But I am quick to point out that they have 401ks and pensions and security for their families,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just up here on some scaffolding, swinging a chainsaw and hoping for the best.”
When you see the look of pure joy on Lueb’s face as he creates each piece, it’s hard to imagine it gets any better.