Buy Now


Making It Big, the Sculptures of Amber Jean
Montana Living, May 2003
When the Nestlé Company needed to find an artist capable of carving a 14-foot-high totem pole out of chocolate, their public relations director typed “chocolate” and “sculptor” into a computer search engine.  Then prayed some matches existed.  One web site popped up on the screen—Amber Jean’s.

Although this Livingston sculptor considers the connection “a cyberspace fluke” she admits it seemed logical under the circumstances.  At that time, Amber Jean’s artist statement appeared on her web site and it began: “I am fueled by chocolate and driven by  a head full of ideas like children all demanding to be let out first.  I work hard to free them.”

Up till then, Amber Jean had chiseled a variety of hard woods to fashion her western-themed fountains, lamps, doors, and humidors.  But she had no expertise carving in soft temperamental chocolate.  That didn’t deter her, however, from traveling to Nestlé’s annual chocolate festival in Wisconsin to create the totem pole.  With a five-gallon bucket of Raisinettes and Goobers for sustenance and the gouges and mallets of her trade by her side, Amber Jean chipped away at the chocolate.  Sixty hours later, the one-of-a-kind totem pole stood finished.  

Nestlé liked the carving so much, they invited her back the next year.  This time, she sculpted a bed weighing in at 5,000 pounds.  On top, she “draped” a rainbow-colored 500-pound quilt made from candy.  Those quirky jobs landed her an appearance on television’s “To Tell the Truth.”  And as it happened, none of the panelists guessed she was “The Michelangelo of Milk Chocolate.”

Obviously, to tackle the massive carvings Amber Jean is known for, a sculptor has to feel comfortable working big.  And that’s exactly how this Montana State graduate has always approached her art.  The first day of a college drawing class, she put pencil to a 24 x 36 tablet of paper like the other students, but didn’t get far. “My energy went off the page,” recalls Amber Jean.  Rather than rein in her impulses, the instructor simply commented, “You need bigger paper.”

Ever since, working big has defined Amber Jean’s modus operandi.  You see it in her 1,500-pound hand-carved beds, eleven-foot-tall grandfather clocks, and 900-pound bison benches crafted from bronze and black walnut.  So it’s not unusual to hear this artist describe one of her large-scale projects in terms such as, “that headboard took four men to move it.”  Fortunately for Amber Jean’s helpers, the headboard wasn’t carved from chocolate, which she knows from first-hand encounters, “is a lot heavier than wood.”

For Amber Jean, sculpture is about, “the push-pull dichotomy of nature’s elegance and roughness and bringing the wild indoors.”   Nothing pleases her more than creating a piece, “where people can experience how the West is graceful yet overwhelming.”

From the start, Amber Jean found herself drawn to materials that don’t usually catch people’s attention.  Take her love of juniper for instance.  “It’s a twisty weathered wood that’s had a hard life,” she says.  “It’s not necessarily attractive.  But cleaning up the juniper is like a discovery.  You wouldn’t know what was under the surface, the streaks of red, unless you polished it.”  

Mustangs appeal to her for the same reasons. “They’re critters of the West, matted and covered with mud and burrs.  They’re not Hollywood sleek,” states Amber Jean.  “But as they run and play with sweat streaking down them, you can see the glimmers of color underneath the dirt.”  Gazing at a bas relief carving of mustangs on one of her award-winning beds, you also feel their unfettered spirit as they gallop across the high plains. 

Amber Jean’s fondness for wood harks back to her childhood days growing up in the Gallatin Valley and to stints working as a wild land firefighter, wilderness ranger, and trail crew member.  Whether she’s carving a gnarly juniper or luxurious mahogany, she sees infinite possibilities in her favorite medium.  

“I love the juxtaposition of wood, how it can be hard and strong yet curve and flow,” notes Amber Jean.  “I find it endlessly beautiful, inviting and challenging.”  Depending on the project, she might also incorporate water, rock, glass, or copper into a piece.  But wood always takes center stage. 

It was during her summers clearing trails and fighting fires in the wilderness that she learned to handle a chain saw.  A skill that became a valuable ally when Amber Jean embarked on her art career.  

“I found I could get rid of a lot of wood fast with a chain saw,” she recalls.  “It let me get to the image quickly.”  The nontraditional background also prompted Amber Jean to use other tools rarely found in a wood sculptor’s repertoire.  Tools such as grinders, pneumatic drills, and tungsten carbide tips that metal workers or mechanics might use.  “I think the informal part of learning woodworking made me see what could be done when others said it couldn’t,” she observes.

After completing the initial stages of each piece with power tools, she relies on hand tools for details and polishing.  “There’s no substitute for the look and feel of hand-chiseled wood,” she’ll tell you.  And anyone who knows anything about wood will also tell you the smoother the surface, the more light is reflected.  Which explains why Amber Jean meticulously burnishes every nook, cranny, and crevice of her work.  “It’s all about light,” she emphasizes.  “Form happens because of light.  It bounces off the light.” 

Although she never intended to be a Western artist, Amber Jean found herself pulled in that direction in spite of herself.  “The trees and the West are so grand and powerful, they’re a part of my life,” she states.  “To be honest and work from my own experience, Western art had to be a part of it.  You can’t separate Western art from nature.”  

And you can’t separate the influences on Amber Jean’s work from the world in which she lives, “in the woods at the end of the road near the top of a mountain in Paradise Valley.”

Visit her online at