James Mellick calls his latest project "the most important thing I've done in my 40 years" as a woodcarver.

"Wounded Warrior Dogs and Faithful Companions," an exhibit of both serious and lighthearted wooden dog sculptures by Mellick, is on display through March 26 at the Ohio Craft Museum, 1665 W. Fifth Ave. in Columbus.

"My motivation was patriotism. I'm a dog lover and I'm a woodworker," Mellick said. "Those things all came together in my Wounded Warrior Dogs project."

His focus for the past two years has been sculpting seven life-sized dogs with the kind of physical wounds American soldiers have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Most of my work uses dogs as the subject," Mellick said. "They are the subjects of the allegories and stories I tell through my work."

It's a subject many people find hard to address, said Mellick, who lives in Milford Center near Marysville.The centerpiece of the exhibit, the Wounded Warrior Dogs project, was inspired "by the need I saw to honor the wounded vets, who are being overlooked and forgotten," he said. "These volunteer soldiers come home from war surviving with injuries that would have been fatal in the Vietnam War. Now we have better treatment and triage and apparatus to keep them alive, but so many of them come home with both physical and mental scars."

"I'm using dogs to stand in for the human vets as a kind of entryway to the subject that some people may need," he said.

His goal is to encourage those who view the sculptures to donate and support worthwhile organizations that help veterans and their families.

The Wounded Warrior Dogs project won the $200,000 grand prize by popular vote in October at ArtPrize 8 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Mellick said he donated 10 percent of his cash prize to organizations that train rescued dogs as service dogs for wounded veterans.

"There are a lot of good organizations out there that help our veterans, and some that don't do as good of a job," he said. "Before you donate to an organization, you need to research it and make sure that at least 80 to 90 percent of the money they raise is used to help veterans and their families."

The exhibition at the craft museum also includes some of Mellick's humorous pieces.

"I have a dog on Viagra, Darwin's Dog and The Politically Incorrect Dog," he said. "Whether they are serious or funny, I try to tell a story through my sculptures."

Golden opportunity

While inspiring others to help veterans is one of Mellick's missions, the exhibition at the craft museum also will assist real-life canines in need.

On March 2, the museum will present a special evening with the Golden Endings Golden Retriever Rescue group.

Golden Endings has two chapters: one based in Grandview, the other in southeast Ohio, said Kay Hirsch, a Grandview Heights resident who serves as the group's executive vice president and adoption coordinator.

"We are a rescue operation specializing in finding new homes for golden retrievers," Hirsch said. "Dogs come to us through owner surrender for various reasons -- it may be the owner's illness, the dog has medical issues, the owner is moving or perhaps the family has become overburdened with finances or other issues and can't take care of their pet anymore."

Since 1995, Golden Endings has found new homes for more than 2,100 retrievers, she said.

"Often, the owner doesn't want to give up their pet, but circumstances force them to," Hirsch said. "It's such a sad thing to see.

"But later, we have the happy, or golden, ending of placing the pet with a new, loving family."

Golden Endings also works with foster families for older and sick pets, Hirsch said.

"They are the real heroes, because when they take in a dog, it's not about what they are going to get from the dog, but what can they give to the dog," she said.

All funding for Golden Endings comes from donations, Hirsch said. The organization has more than 800 supporters, each of whom pays a $20 annual membership fee.

Last year, the organization incurred $65,000 in veterinarian bills for dogs under its care, she said.

Golden Endings connected with Mellick after a longtime supporter of the group commissioned him to make sculptures of her two rescue retrievers in the same style he used for Wounded Warrior Dogs.

"At our special event on March 2, people will be able to meet those two dogs," Hirsch said.

The evening will include a talk by Mellick, raffle baskets, a make-and-take activity and light refreshments.

It is scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the museum. For reservations, call 614-486-4402. For more information about Golden Endings Golden Retriever Rescue, visit goldenendingsrescue.com.

Mellick's website is jamesmellick.com.

The Ohio Craft Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 1 to 4 p.m. weekends. Admission and parking are free. For more information, visit ohiocraft.org.