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Carving out their niche: Local woodcarvers find joy in creating

Janet Hodgson created this piece of art by burning a piece of flat wood with a hot-tipped pen, which creates different shades of burn according to how hot it is. Hodgson started wood burning roughly five years ago, and is now up to 105 pieces, which she sells at shows around the area.1 / 3
Janet HOdgson is the newest member of the Lake Country Wood Carvers,2 / 3
Richard Spadgenske has been carving wood ducks for about 20 years.3 / 3

Richard Spadgenski sits patiently at a table set up at the Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes, chatting with friends and whittling away at a piece of wood.

With each swipe of his knife, the chunk of wood gets closer and closer to resembling a duck -- a wood duck to be exact.

"These are number 51 and 52," the Frazee man said of the pieces of art that typically take him about 75 hours each to finish.

And when he is finished, there's a good chance he will donate it to a charitable cause, bringing in around $300 each.

Spadgenski is a member of the Lakes Country Wood Carvers -- he's one of 12 members who gather once a month from places like Moorhead, Lake Park, Perham, Frazee and Detroit Lakes.

A common love of sculpting wooden art brings them together.

"None of us started out with any training," said Detroit Lakes man Dennis Forsell, who has been carving for roughly 20 years, "but you take a class here or there, you get better, and it's really a sense of accomplishment."

The wood carvers choose to meet at a vacant room in the mall, with the hopes that a passer-by will see them and get curious.

"We smile sweetly and try to entice them in," said Janet Hodgson, the newest of the group.

Their goal is recruit other newbies who might want to take a stab at the craft.

"We're looking to get some new blood in here," said Hodgson, "some younger people that these guys can pass on all their knowledge to so that it doesn't become a dead art."

The group all agrees that wood carving, which began in the middle ages in Italy and France, isn't exactly cutting edge.

"I think it's really died down, especially over the last 20 years," said Spadgenski, who is set to teach a wood carving class through the Community Education Program in January.

He says for him, the time-intensive hobby is relaxing.

"I go down in my basement where I have a TV and radio and I just whittle away," Spadgenski said.

The members all have their own strengths and own reasons why they are drawn to the art.

"One lady comes in here and does this for therapy," said Forsell, "she's had some health issues and she can't do as many things as she used to do, so part of this is therapy -- for her sense of mind."

For Forsell, wood carving has helped sculpt his legacy, as he just put six pieces of his art into the museum in his hometown of Valley City -- for others, it's just more of a pastime.

"It gives me something to do," said Hodgson, "and keeps me out of mischief," she laughs.

Hodgson doesn't carve wood, as much as she burns it.

She uses a hot-tipped pen with interchangeable tips and a thermostat that controls the heat, and thereby the color of the burn, ranging from black to very light brown.

"The first one I did was in September of 2006," said Hodgson, who says the only subject she could never get an 'A' in was art.

"I have a hard time drawing a stick figure, but for some reason I can do this," she laughed.

That she can.

The detail she is able to burn into a piece of flat wood seems to be just as intricate as a professional drawing or painting.

The images are not conjured up in her own mind, however.

"I go by a pattern in a book," she explains, "so you don't have to be super talented or creative -- just patient."

The wood carvers travel around the tri-state region, even up to Winnipeg to display or sell their art.

In fact, traveling is how one of the original founders of the group, David Chenoweth, discovered wood carving.

"I wanted something that I could do in a hotel room that wasn't too messy or too pricy," Chenoweth said, showing off a walking stick he made for a friend with Parkinson's disease.

"It's nothing really fancy, but it's one he can actually use," he said.

Chenoweth says a beginner carver can start out for less than $20 -- the price of a few knives.

"You just have to be willing to recognize that it takes time to build the skill," said Hodgson who has also began teaching her young granddaughters how to wood burn, "but these guys are just great as far as helping you and encouraging you -- they're great."

The wood carvers meet at the Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes the second Saturday of the month from September to May.