ST. PAUL—For Tanner Spicer, woodcarving is a respite from the rigors of everyday life.
He sits in his garage workspace for hours at a time, slicing away at blocks of basswood and briarwood until they come to life as meticulous figures with fictional names such as "Anders Anderson," "Clyde" and "Red."
"It's so fun to do," he said of his hobby, which he took up just over a year ago.
It also brings the Mendota Heights police sergeant a source of calm and solace from the effects of police work, especially a tragic summer day four years ago.
Spicer was among the first on the scene when his friend and co-worker officer Scott Patrick was fatally shot during a traffic stop in West St. Paul on July 30, 2014. He helped do CPR on Patrick's lifeless body.
"I had never dealt with it afterwards," Spicer said. "You just kind of put everything on the back burner and put your best foot forward and keep going, and that's not always the healthiest option."
He says of woodcarving, "This is a way to deal with it."
When Spicer talks about woodcarving, his eyes light up and the tone and pitch of his voice change.
"I just come up with caricatures," he said, grabbing a diorama of "Red" off a garage shelf at his Chisago City home earlier this month.
Red is a farmer who wears a John Deere hat and overalls. He's watching two skunks driving away in his tractor, leaving behind skid marks on grass. Spicer proceeds to tell Red's story:
"Red's not sure what will be worse ... explaining to his wife, Irene, how her lawn got torn up or explaining to the sheriff how two overweight skunks stole his tractor."
Spicer pulled another piece off the shelf: a balding police sergeant with gray eyebrows and a disgusted look on his wrinkled face.
"You can tell he's been around for a while," said Spicer, who is 44. "That's the look he gives the rookie when the rookie jinxes the shift and says, 'Boy, it sure is quiet tonight.' "
Carving for others
A lot of his work is for others, like a U.S. Navy Seabee he carved for a friend, or his interpretation of the photograph "Grace" that he gave to his mother — a diorama that goes beyond the Bible, candle, soup bowl and bread and spoon. Spicer added a snow-covered window and candle.
"There's a shadow in the painting, so I wondered what would cause that," he said. "It had to be some sort of light."
Other wood creations are inspired by people. There's the old guy Spicer saw at a coffee shop who had a newspaper under his arm and a cane. A Korean War vet is a tribute to his grandfather.
It's all in the details, Spicer said.
"I just take off a little at a time," he said, while carving the back of an old man's leg with a Stanley utility knife. "Like here, the calf muscles are going to be indented and the pants will behave over it. His pants are long. So how is that fabric going to fold as it meets the floor and meets the boot?"
Spicer posts pictures of his work on his Facebook page, drawing praise and encouragement from friends. Mendota Heights City Council member Liz Petschel recently recalled the first time she saw what Spicer was creating.
"I was astounded," she said. "He has an amazing gift."
But she said a post where Spicer called woodcarving "surprisingly relaxing and therapeutic" stood out.
"I know that it's saved him in terms of his personal peace and feeling a little bit better in the aftermath of what he went through with Scott," she said. "It's just one of the most incredible things."
Riding in the ambulance
Spicer had been on the job for 14 hours and was leading officer training at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights when he got the call that Patrick had been shot. When he and officer John Larrive pulled up, Patrick was lying motionless in the street.
A handful of bystanders, including a nurse, had come to Patrick's side almost immediately. He had been hit three times, including once in the head.
In the back of the ambulance with Patrick, Spicer had to do something.
"We already knew he was gone, but you still try," he said of their life-saving attempts.
Spicer soon learned from his police chief that Patrick had designated him as the family liaison in case of emergency. That meant he was the one to tell Michelle Patrick that her husband was gone.
About two years ago, it starting weighing on Spicer. He had bad dreams that would wake him up. He was crabby with his wife and kids.
"Normally, I'm very patient, pretty mild-mannered," he said.
So he began praying more.
"And I started doing this," he said, pointing to his work bench.