The Magic of Wood and Wood Art

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for August 9, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            My playmates in the late 1930’s were crazy about “playing cars,” as we called it, whereby we pushed our toy vehicles over and under the tunnels we had dug in the sand pile. Before World War II began in 1939, toy cars, tractors, trucks, etc., were made of metal with real rubber wheels. Once the War was under way and many materials became scarce, about 1942, most toys were made of wood, or of celluloid (precursor to plastic) including sand pile vehicles.

            Contrary to the disappointment of my friends, at Christmas I was delighted to receive wooden cars, army tanks, jeeps, etc., from Santa, because I loved wood, — anything made of wood delighted me (celluloid, of course, was cheap and ugly). My friends longed for the authenticity of little metal cars with rubber wheels, but once the War was underway, you were lucky to get real rubber tires for your real automobile, so they had to make do with wood.

            Not only did I love those little wooden Wartime vehicles with wooden wheels, I held all wood in high esteem. Although my father wouldn’t let me chop wood which we used for our heaters, he provided me with plenty pieces of scrap from the split logs. I would make things out of these scraps; once I even carved a statue of Jesus from the wood. My grandfather carved wooden spoons out of cedar for my grandmother to use in her kitchen, and I even tried to make a few of those. My grandfather once made a wooden hymn board for our little country church, carving a cross out of wood and attaching it to the top. By the time I was six or seven, I wanted to be a wood artist like him, though he considered himself merely a whittler and taught me how to use and sharpen a pocket knife properly.

            Over the years, I have known many other men like my father and grandfather who were superb “whittlers,” as the magic of carved wood continued to fascinate me. In rural towns like Dime Box, folks didn’t consider men capable of being creative; no, it was the women who were the artists as they pieced together their resplendent quilts and their elegantly entrancing crochet work, not to mention embroidery, etc. My grandmother even drew her own embroidery designs. But while the women were threading their needles and artfully weaving their magic in the house, the men folks were sitting on the steps of the barn whittling pieces of wood into chimerical artistry.

            Well, the old-timers wouldn’t have considered their work “wood sculpture,” — they wouldn’t have even thought of it as “wood art.” Just plain “whittlin’,” that’s all!

            Now that I’m one of those “old-timers,” I continue to follow in a lot of footsteps (or maybe I should say, knife cuts), as I spend a lot of time in my studio doing “wood art.” At first I called what I did “wood sculpture,” but, no, what those mentors taught me was just “whittlin’.” Oh, I even bought a set of professional wood sculpturing tools some years ago, — used them once, put them back in their fancy box and never looked at them again. It’s just me and my pocket knives, one that my son-in-law gave me and the other, a vintage knife from my father-in-law’s father. What one won’t do, the other will. They work their wood magic very well!

            It’s been my tradition for a number of years now to whittle some wood art for our Annual Silent Auction Fund-Raiser given by St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis. Over the years, I have created and auctioned pieces of wood art entitled Cow Skull and Rattlesnake, The Great White Heron, Portrait of a Longhorn (as in cow, not football team), The Egret, Harvey Rescue Cowboy Boot, and a few others.

            This year, I have just finished two pieces of wood art for the auction. One is The Eternal Flame, a creation which was inspired by the sculptured glass Eternal Flame created by David Ascalon, the Eternal Flame at JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, and the Eternal Flame in our church and in many other churches, symbolizing God’s eternal presence in our lives. The other one is entitled The Way and is based on John 14:6. “I am the way. . . No one comes to the Father except through me.” These two pieces were made of driftwood from the beaches of Hawaii, and from wood scraps. Nothing more magical than driftwood!

            Our Fund-Raiser is being held on September 9, 2018, at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Wallis. Come bid on some wood art, or just come look at it, and while you’re there, buy a luscious chicken-fried chicken dinner.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


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