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Sunday, July 21, 2024 at 12:04 PM

Carving a Path to Healing: One Woman’s Transformative Artistic Journey

Carving a Path to Healing: One Woman’s Transformative Artistic Journey
Photos courtesy of Victoria Crystal.

Carve out. It is a familiar phrase, often associated with finding time or space for something amidst the chaos of daily life. But the carving took on a much deeper meaning for one resilient woman in a small Nevada town. Victoria Crystal, a local mom, and volunteer discovered that by sculpting wood, she could bring something unexpected to life and chisel away at the painful experiences that burdened her.

Victoria’s journey began after her home was ravaged by fire not once but twice, leaving her grappling with profound loss. Somehow, she was determined to stay positive while being a wife and mother to her young children. Little did she know that an even greater tragedy awaited her—a nightmare that surpassed her imagination. On New Year’s Day 2012, Victoria’s daughter, Alyssa, fell victim to violence at the hands of a man that would later be infamously dubbed the I-80 strangler. Although Alyssa miraculously survived the attempted strangulation, she vanished without a trace later that same year.

Faced with Alyssa’s inexplicable disappearance, Victoria embarked on an exhaustive search for her daughter, reaching out to law enforcement, tribal leaders, friends, and family. For ten agonizing months, she scoured jails, hospitals, and morgues across Nevada and the Southwest to no avail. “It seemed like no one was taking any action,” she recalled. “I felt like I was going crazy,”

Amid this harrowing ordeal, a twist of fate introduced Victoria to an unexpected source of solace. She stumbled upon a fallen branch beneath an ancient cottonwood tree during a Saturday four-wheeler ride with her husband. “Look, it’s a silly horse,” Victoria remarked to Shawn, who did not see a horse, silly or otherwise. Unbeknownst to her, that seemingly insignificant limb would become her escape.

In pursuit of that split second vision, Victoria began carving, and Silly Horse became one of her earliest wooden creations, shaped with whatever rudimentary tools Shawn had on hand. Clothed in a blanket of despair, she ventured outside to their shop, letting the wood guide her hands. Piece by piece, the wood revealed its secrets, transforming into distinct works of art.

The intricate details of Victoria’s carvings, at times all but imperceptible to the naked eye, bear witness to her artistic vision. It is almost inconceivable that some of these pieces were crafted solely with a screwdriver. Over time, Victoria tried carving with a basic chop saw that hung from the shop wall. “Don’t do that,” she laughs now, reflecting on the far-from-OSHA-approved practices of the past. Resourceful as ever, she took over Shawn’s DeWalt Grinder and made do with sandpaper for cars or whatever materials were within reach. “I couldn’t find my daughter, and I felt like I was losing my mind,” Victoria recalled. So, she focused her mind on something else.

Carving became Victoria’s therapy, a life raft in a stormy sea of despair. Eventually, she found her daughter in a jail cell in Gallup, New Mexico. No arrest report or charges have surfaced regarding Alyssa’s incarceration, leaving Victoria convinced that the Bureau of Indian Affairs played a role in her daughter’s disappearance and placement behind bars.

Unbeknownst to Victoria, wood carving had long been recognized as a powerful form of expression and therapy. It is well-documented that trauma, in all its forms, can leave deep emotional scars; wood carving, however, provides a tangible and transformative experience, allowing individuals to process their trauma profoundly. For her, it became a way of healing through touch and storytelling through artistry,

In the years following Alyssa’s return, Victoria faced additional hardships. Her daughter’s mental health deteriorated, culminating in a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a condition marked by psychosis and extreme mood disorders. She fell into a relentless cycle of worry, concern, and tireless advocacy for her daughter. Furthermore, she was nearly crushed between a railroad car and her vehicle, leaving her in a wheelchair for a time and enduring extensive rehabilitation.

Despite the setbacks, Victoria persevered. As her injuries healed and she regained her mobility, she returned to her therapeutic practice of wood carving. Guided by the healing nature of her craft, she allowed the wood to reveal its hidden tales. Whether miniature bowls and spoons, flower petals, or a long and lanky Persian cat with a slender tail and one ear flopped over, each piece became part of her. Victoria had learned to surrender to the wood’s wisdom rather than forcing art from within.

From a therapeutic standpoint, wood carving offers a tactile experience that engages the body and mind. It can create a sense of connection to an object and restore a measure of self-control. Such hands-on therapies can help individuals rediscover themselves, releasing pain, tension, and frustration. Victoria did not initially consider her practice art therapy at the time, but looking back, she can see the solace and refuge it provided.

Unfortunately, further devastation awaited Victoria. After enduring multiple hospitalizations, bouts of homelessness, and the birth of her son Colt, Alyssa tragically lost her life in a hit-and-run accident in Reno in 2020. While it can be said no one fully recovers from that type of loss, Victoria has chosen to do what she has always done, forge ahead. Though not a cure-all for the profound grief and emotional turmoil caused by catastrophic loss, art therapy offered her a soothing diversion. 

Wood carving has become an integral part of Victoria’s healing journey. As she carefully carves away at the wood, a transformation unfolds—not just for the branches, limbs, bark, or blocks of wood, but for Victoria herself. While she now wields a Dremel and other precise carving tools, Silly Horse remains close to her heart, a cherished symbol of her resilience.

With four adult children out on their own, a husband and two young sons at home, Jessie (8) and Tyler (12), as well the baby – Colt (3), Victoria has her hands full. Yet, she still manages to donate her time and resources to the community and advocate for those she loves. Her story is a profound reminder that the human spirit can soar even in the face of unimaginable adversity. As for now, Victoria continues carving out new paths toward healing, one intricate stroke at a time.