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Nancy Perkins, Deseret Morning News
Attorney Paul Graf works on a clay figure.

SANTA CLARA — Paul Graf, in his work as an attorney, deals in the stark absolutes of right and wrong.

He prosecutes civil-collection and child-support cases, along with criminal federal cases for the Utah Attorney General's Office in St. George. He handled hundreds of criminal cases, too, as a Washington County attorney.

But it's not Graf's years of success as a lawyer that drive his days and nights, and give added dimension to his life. It's something far more personal: a compulsion to release the living forms from lifeless objects.

"Ever since I was a little kid I remember having an impulse to whittle," says Graf. "It's always been there. I could feel there was something in the wood that I needed to bring out, but I couldn't do it. I didn't have the skills."

And so Graf, the son of a Highway Patrol trooper, would whittle away at scraps of wood, seeking the images he saw within.

"I remember when I was really young trying to whittle an Indian chief's head, complete with full headdress, out of a piece of wood," he says. "I could see it in there, but I couldn't get it out of the wood. It was very frustrating, big time."

By the time he was a teenager, says Graf, he finished his first real sculpture: a horse's head whittled into a cedar post standing out at the family farm in Santa Clara.

Graf has made several chests and other pieces of furniture. But it's the forgiving nature of clay that really intrigues him, he says.

"I'm not a two-dimensional person," Graf says, fingering a lumpy mound of clay resting on a waist-high table in his family room. He thumbs a sliver of clay onto his latest work in progress: a rearing horse with its startled rider hanging on for dear life.

An "avid Scouter," Graf, 59, still enjoys carving wooden links out of a single block of wood and giving them to a worthy Boy Scout during campouts.

It was Graf's wife, Kathy, who urged him to try sculpting with clay, he says, so he signed up for night classes from a local sculptor, Jerry Anderson, eight or nine years ago. He found, he says, that he loved working in that medium.

"I can move much more quickly to my end goal than I can with a piece of wood," he explains, holding a sculpting knife made from elk bone in his right hand. "If I realize what I've captured is wrong, I can adjust it quickly."

It was difficult, he says now, to even think of creating a piece of art in clay that would later be immortalized in bronze. But he was driven, he says, to release what he saw.

One of his first bronze sculptures enshrines a childhood memory of the wild mustang his uncle bought from a local Indian tribe.

"His nose was deformed," Graf says of the horse everyone called "Twisty" because of a misshapen nose caused by a "twitch" someone had wrapped around the end of the horse's nose, near its lips, as a way to control it.

"My uncle bought him after World War II and removed that twitch right away, so he wasn't abused any longer."

Twisty had a wild streak, says Graf, and no one but his uncle ever rode the strange-looking creature.

Other stories from his childhood have taken form in clay and later bronze. One work, "The Gopher Held On," depicts his dad as a boy and his dog, Rex, with a gopher sinking its teeth into the end of the dog's nose.

"That dog didn't know what to do, but the gopher finally let go," Graf says now, laughing. "Rex didn't eat that gopher, I think he developed a healthy respect for it instead."

Graf has also sculpted the delicate lines of a ballerina, modeled after one of his daughters, Jennie, and he has shaped the massive strength of a buffalo swinging its burly head to the side as it prepares to charge.

In 1999 he was commissioned to sculpt the bust of a Santa Clara pioneer, which was unveiled during the town's annual celebration of its Swiss ancestors.

His most recent piece, titled "He's Off," was chosen for display this year in the Art Around the Corner street project in St. George. Advertised as an open-air sculpture exhibit along Main Street in the heart of St. George, the 20 pieces on display are featured for one year. Each sculpture has a listed price and can be purchased.

Most of the sculptures in the street project are placed in downtown St. George, but Graf's piece is on display at Dixie State College, near the Eccles Fine Arts Center. The sculpture captures a bucking bull throwing its rider and turning its wrath on a rodeo clown. Graf has mixed feelings about the hardened bronze sculpture now on display.

"It's like having a kid," Graf says. "You think he's beautiful, but you know there are flaws. You feel a little vulnerable. You just hope other people see the beauty in it, too."

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com