300-hour project: Tipp City man carves gorgeous Nativity scene

His inspiration — UD Marian Library’s renowned Nativity scenes — can be viewed online this year

One of the Miami Valley’s most distinctive treasures is the amazing collection of Nativity scenes housed at the University of Dayton’s Marian Library.

The project traces its start back to 1994 when more than 2,000 of the pieces were donated by the Elisabeth Van Mullekom-Cserep creche collection in Australia. More than 100 countries are now represented in the 3,600 creches housed at UD.

In a normal year, selected scenes would be on display at the UD library and loaned out over the holiday season to churches and organizations throughout our area.

Not surprisingly, this year is different.

“Sadly, because of the pandemic, we had to cancel our annual ‘At the Manger’ exhibit, which is typically visited by about 5,000 people every year,” says Jillian Ewalt, librarian for visual resources, who coordinates the annual exhibit. “We still want to connect with the community this holiday season, however, and we are doing that virtually — showcasing Nativity imagery from postcards, stamps, art, holy cards, rare books and more from the library’s collections.”

Inspired by the UD display

Mike Nygren, a Tipp City resident, wrote to say he visited the UD exhibit after reading our Dayton Daily News story last year. “I returned a few times, each time bringing some friends,” he says. “Little did I know that I would be inspired by one of the displays to return home and take up my woodcarving hobby of fifty years ago!”

Nygren took countless pictures on those three visits. Thanks to the pandemic and a free calendar, he embarked on a 300-hour project to carve the 20-plus figures and build the backdrop to create his own scene.

“I was not going to let the pandemic define me,” he says now. “But it did. A new vision, new dreams, new goals and new actions.”

We chatted with Nygren about his memorable project.

Q: What prompted you to see the UD exhibit?

A: I grew up in New York and my parents owned a hobby store. My mother had painted an elaborate ceramic Nativity set. When she died while I was in college, it became very important to me. And since then I have had an appreciation for Nativities. I love UD, and I love art and local adventures.

Q: What were a few of your favorite scenes at the Marian Library?

A: Having traveled to 30 countries, I was most interested to see how each was represented from countries we had visited. The one made from pop cans from Haiti brought the greatest memories!

I loved the diversity of mediums and the size and scale of each. They ranged from three pieces to a large one that seemed to have over 100 pieces. I was most consumed in thinking how each artist decided to tell the Jesus story in a different way.

Q: What was your previous woodcarving experience?

A: I have an industrial arts degree and taught woodshop/woodcarving in West Milton from 1971-1979. But I had not returned to the hobby since. I decided in 2019 that I was going to pursue woodcarving again, but I wasn’t sure what I would do. Seeing the display was an instant “aha moment.”

Because it was a hobby, I never really counted hours — but am pretty sure that the average for each piece was over 10 hours. I took as many photos as possible at the library — returned home to sketch the drawing to scale, cut them from blocks of wood, sanded and painted each.

Q: How has this project been a bright spot during the pandemic?

A: As things began to be canceled in our lives, I had more time to focus on this “adventure.” Starting out, I did not realize how enormous the job would be. Since I only drew up the designs — two or three at a time — I had lots of time to ponder why the artist chose the figures. They ranged from a peasant woman carrying a dead chicken to a man hiking alone.

I asked myself: Why those people? Who would that artist include if carving in America today?

Q: What other people played a part in this project?

A: Leonard Sweet was a professor and president at United Seminary while I was a student there for a few classes. Because I was a youth leader for over 20 years locally, I had the opportunity to teach Scripture in countless situations — and often to students who could care less about the Bible. Leonard taught me how to teach beyond the verses and the words — but to think instead about the setting. To think about the people as people and how the stories were of real people, not always religious people. And so I gained great confidence in his simple approach of asking questions that no one might be able to answer. And instead to think about how the story might have really played out. And so that background made carving each piece kind of special.

Rusty Harden is a local artist who lives in Tipp City and teaches classes and is one of the great art advocates in the area. My history in painting my woodcarvings was not very good. I painted like you might see on wood figures at arts and crafts shows.

I connected with Rusty and asked if she would coach me with this project. When I was finished carving I brought the pieces to her studio. We started setting them up as a display (similar to what UD did) and she helped me talk through the characters. Imagining why and who the people were. Who came with who — who came early — and most importantly, what was each person’s reason for being there.

She talked about “what might their clothes look like” and then who were similar in nature. And she helped make decisions of who should be painted what color.

Q: How did your time in Israel influence this work?

A: I have studied in Israel with a historian and archeologist on several occasions. After my first trip to Israel and the tour guide stopped to show us where Jesus’s tomb was, and then proceeded down the road and said, “but it might be here” … I realized I wanted to learn not from the tourist perspectives, but instead to think and imagine how it all may have happened. So the landscape I chose to create looks like what I traveled on for miles and miles in a variety of places throughout Israel. The possibility of a cave setting was possible for the birthplace.

Q: How does your religion influence this project?

A: Faith is real to me. But I support and respect all faiths. Growing up with a Catholic grandmother and mother influencing me, I always had the greatest respect for the Christmas story. But always wanting to help young people come to their own decisions about faith.

And also in this time of the pandemic — when everything seemed to be in chaos and confusion — I continue to be concerned about the message our young people are hearing and seeing about faith. With so much division, fighting and judgment within the church, realizing who showed up at the Nativity caused me to continually wonder who would show up if the birth was today.


  • A selection of Nativities from the University of Dayton’s collection can be viewed online at https://ecommons.udayton.edu/imri_creches.
  • In lieu of ‘At the Manger’ this year, UD is offering a virtual Advent wreath. It includes the “On Paper” virtual exhibit, a video of Brother Ray reading aloud the Nativity narrative from Luke’s gospel and a montage of creches from the collection to illustrate the story. It’s at go.udayton.edu/adventwreath.

About the Author