USAF Museum Celebrates Service Dogs With James Mellick Sculpture Exhibit

Jan 29, 2020

Ohio artist James Mellick makes highly detailed, life-size, wooden sculptures of dogs. He’s been doing it for forty years now.

He uses walnut for Chocolate Labs, basswood for Yellow Labs, cedar for Red Dobermans, and sycamore for Malinois.

He’ll work a single sculpture for over a month, crafting it to perfection, and he makes all kinds of canines: surreal dogs that serve as allegories, realistic dogs that are playful and fun, and service dogs that have been injured in combat.

Mellick’s exhibit of Canine Warriors at the United States Air Force Museum closes this Friday, January 31. It’s the last chance to see these sculptures in their home state for a long time. They’ll be on the road, at other museums and galleries, until 2021.

During a lecture about his sculptures at the Air Force Museum last week, Mellick broke out in song. It was a song he wrote—one about how dogs love to roll around in roadkill:

I am a dog and I like to roll in dead things on the road
Nearly got hit by a car last night but if the truth be told
Roadkill is wonderful stuff….

The auditorium was packed. Over 500 people crowded in to hear Mellick speak. Outside the auditorium, hundreds more filed through his exhibit. 

Skye Samson drove two hours from Toledo to see the show. Samson suffers from crippling migraines that can affect her vision and require help. She says the show spoke to her.

“It definitely had a connection because I have an assistance dog, and it was really nice to see the representation of the working dogs. They’re being held to higher standards,” Samson said.

Samson is just one of dozens of people who were visibly moved by the sculptures, perhaps because of Mellick’s high standards for his own work.

Mellick doesn’t carve animals out of one big block of wood. Instead, he makes the torso, the legs, the head, even the teeth and tongue separately, then assembles them.

A lot of the work is carving and sanding.

“I attack that sucker however I can and get as much done as I can as quickly as I can with a heavy profile grinder, angle grinders, heavy sandpaper, pneumatic carvers, dye grinders, things like that,” he says. “And then sometimes, if I’m working with the detail pieces and I’ll go back in with the hand carving.”

He then bleaches and burns the wood to make the parts look like they have fur.

“There’s a two part bleach I put on to lighten the wood,” he says. “Like if you were frosting your hair? In effect, I’m frosting the dog’s hair. For the darker areas, I use the torch, and buff it out so it gets a nice ebonized feeling to it. And then the middle tone is the natural wood itself.”

Mellick says it takes at least 160 hours to make one sculpture. The teeth and tongue alone take two to three days, and two to three types of wood. He prefers bleached maple for the teeth, and often uses cedar for the tongue.

When a sculpture is done, it’s moving.

Matt Tracy came to the exhibit because he trains service dogs that will go on to work with disabled children and veterans. He’s also a craftsman who builds benches, shelves, and cabinets, and who admires Mellick’s work.

“The life he captures. The way he uses the woods. It is phenomenal to me to see this level of artwork bringing these dogs to life,” Tracy says. “I wish I could be that good.”

Mellick says he wanted to address the issue of Veterans committing suicide with this sculpture of a service dog named "Robson." Robson's handler, Retired U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant David Simpson, committed suicide after struggling with PTSD, depression, and Lyme Disease that caused him significant mental and physical anguish.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

And how does Mellick get emotion into these dogs? He says he tries to walk a mile in their paws.

“I’ve had plenty of dogs,” he says. “I know they have a certain gesture when they’re bad, when they’re guilty, when they’ve done something wrong, when they’re happy, when they’re joyous. You’re trying to capture that gesture. You know, man’s best friend. They got the goods on us. So, I’m making them tell stories about the human condition.”

Mellick says he gets his analytical skills and love of the classics from his father, but his passion for woodwork comes from his mother “who made a lot of her own furniture: cabinets and shelves and a flip-top-table that would fold up.” He says that when the family couldn’t afford the furniture she wanted, she made it herself.

The exhibit of Wounded Warrior Dogs on display at the Air Force museum won the People’s Choice Award at Art Prize 8 in Michigan, but it wasn’t without its detractors. Mellick says some critics felt he only won by pulling on heartstrings and playing on patriotism with his tribute to combat dogs.

But in the end, Mellick says he’s happy his work appeals to the people, if not the critics. 

This James Mellick sculpture of an injured dog that uses wheels for mobility is one of the most popular at the exhibit.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

One of the last people at the exhibit today is Jason Williams. He wanted to bring his two young sons to see the show, but he waited until the crowd died down. He’s been injured, so he’s using a motorized scooter to get around the exhibit.

“I absolutely love it,” Willaims says. “Being a combat vet myself, it means a lot. I’ve got four breaks in my back. So, thinking about some of the guys that we don’t have back. They didn’t come back.”

Williams’ son, Jason Junior, is drawn to a sculpture of a dog that has challenges similar to his fathers’. When asked which one he likes best, Jason Jr. says, “the one with those two wheels” and points to a dog that has a wheelchair instead of hind legs.

He says he likes that dog best because it may have been hurt, but it can still get around.