ENCINITAS — In October 2003, the largest fire ever recorded in California swept through the Cuyumaca Mountains in San Diego. The Cedar fire destroyed more 335 homes and took 15 lives. From the ashes of tragedy, Alexandre “Sasha” Safonov saw an area in rebirth when he visited in 2006. “Locals were carrying on; I saw this optimism in people I met who had been through a lot,” said Safonov, an Encinitas resident.With the help of a friend who lives in the Cuyumaca Mountains, Safonov discovered a burnt, 500-year-old piece of pinewood that was to become “The Phoenix.”
“When I first saw the wood, I knew what I wanted to do with it,” Safonov said. “There was this strong, undeniable feeling to it.”
The 16-foot, 3,000-pound horse is defiantly perched on its hind legs at Safonov’s outdoor studio at Sunshine Gardens in Encinitas. Horses run deep through American mythology and local lore in the Cuyumaca Mountains. Safonov, originally from Russia, sees the animal as a fitting tribute to those affected by the fires.
“Everyone there loves horses,” Safonov said. “When you read stories talking about the area, there’s lots of references to horses.”
He carefully carved each part of the horse with a chainsaw while standing on scaffolding for five months. To make matters more difficult, pinewood is one of the more challenging woods to carve because it’s both coarse and fine-grained in parts, according to Safonov.
Although “The Phoenix” was shown in the Cuyumaca Mountains and later at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2007, Safonov only recently completed the sculpture after several additional months of work. Waiting for the pinewood to dry out, he refinished each part of the wood, giving the horse a smooth, dark gloss.
“‘The Phoenix’ is rising again,” said Safonov with a laugh.
In 1996, Safonov had his own fresh start when he came to the U.S. from Russia, where he studied sculpting and European classical painting. Many of his paintings and sculptures are classically inspired. But traces of abstract and art noveua can also be found in some of his work.
“I have one piece in mind where I would like to mix three or four different styles,” Safonov said.
Safonov said he prefers sculpting and painting in the U.S. because of the greater artistic freedom, and he enjoys “the nice weather and friendly people in Encinitas.” He does, however, miss Russian artists who weren’t afraid to dish out constructive criticism.
“A group of us would meet and find the tiniest flaws in each other’s sculptures,” Safonov said. “I really liked that and believe it was good for me. I grew a lot that way.”
“People here can be too nice; sometimes I beg them to find flaws in my sculptures,” he added with a laugh.
To be fair, even someone with a trained eye may have a difficult time discerning any physical imperfections in Safonov’s sculptures. His other sculptures at Sunshine Gardens include wooden dolphins swimming together and a bronze statue of children playing with a bird.
Internationally collected, he’s renowned for flowing lines that give his wood and bronze sculptures a sense of movement. He’s also known for his detail-oriented approach. For example, veins and muscles bulge from “The Phoenix,” and small quirks like a lizard at the base of the sculpture pop out after examination.
“Those little things are what makes a statue more charming,” Safonov said.
What will Safonov sculpt next?
Two massive pieces of cedar and redwood await at his outdoor studio. Safonov isn’t sure what his chainsaw will transform them into. But he said he’ll get a better idea after spending some time cleaning the wood.
“There’s two ways to work with wood,” Safonov said. “Either you tell the wood what you’re going to do, or the wood tells you what to do.”
Always taking a cue from his surroundings, Safonov clearly favors the second approach.
View Safonov’s sculptures at Sunshine Gardens or visit sashasart.com for more information.