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A Man and His Craft: Woodworking Over Age 100

September 26, 2015
by North House Folk School

Art shaping his box elder birthday bowl.

Art started out looking at a huge piece of a box elder tree. This wood was then mounted on a lathe and turned into the shape of a large bowl. "When you cut wet wood it has a beautiful sound to it--it seems like it's waiting to be turned," says Art. Art was creating a birthday bowl for himself out of this box elder, which came from a tree that was probably a seedling around the year he retired. If that story line and the math in it seem wrong, Let me explain: while Art was turning that birthday bowl, he was also turning 100 years old.

Art Grabowski is now 102 and still actively working in his Grand Forks, ND shop. He is a talented woodworker and turner who talks as much about design, architecture and art as he does about wood. Wood just happens to be his chosen medium.

Working wood, for Art, began as a utilitarian practice. He describes how "everything was made out of wood." Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1910s and 1920s, he lived in an age when most around-the-house improvement work was done with hand tools. Art was surrounded by traditional craft, from stone masonry to beer brewing, and regularly watched his father and grandfather work with wood.

Dwarfed by cottonwood trees.

Around the years of the Great Depression, Art helped build sailboats as a pastime and also ran a framing shop with his brother where he connected with people making moulded and carved frames. Through these experiences, his knowledge of wood grew.

When Art retired from a career as a federal grain inspector (right around when that box elder tree started growing), he dug into woodworking as a hobby. His inspiration was some small wooden boxes that he saw in a jewelry store in California. He was mesmerized. Art went home and bought the tools he needed to start making boxes. Around the same time, he started meeting with a group of hobbyist woodworkers. They were carpenters and bowl turners, and they inspired him even further.

Since then he has spent most days in his wood shop, either working on his house or making boxes or bowls or wooden-ware. And he has been successful with it -- when asked about Art's work, Lou Pignolet, a bowl turning instructor at North House, describes his boxes as intricate and complex, "The workmanship is excellent."

A few of Art's elaborate boxes. These measure about 6" long.

Talking to Art about wood could inspire just about anyone to want to hold, touch and shape a piece of wood. Art approaches wood not as a creator, but as a humble and grateful friend, observing and listening. "Wood is really a wonderful thing to get into," he said. "Pieces of wood become pals." According to his grandson, Talon Stammen (a talented craftsman himself), when Art is working a burl, he likes to put it on his bench and look at it for a while. He lets the wood decide what it wants to be -- a bowl, a plate, maybe a lidded container.

The theme that comes up the most with Art is nature as the ultimate architect. "Nature is 100% design," he said. "Leaves, bugs, animals, people; nature does all that designing." Art always wants to let the natural beauty of the wood shine through. Rather than paint or carve a piece, he leaves it mostly natural to see the grain of the wood.

Art with his grandson Talon, the next generation woodworker

After working with only dry wood for years, Art found a new world in green wood when he began turning. "Dry wood has its merits and so does fresh wood," he said. "[Fresh wood has] no dust, and it makes beautiful shavings. It's relaxing, it gives you more freedom, and the tool reacts differently. The wood reacts to your personality."

Lou Pignolet, who has taught and hosted Art often over the past few years, considers Art as much a teacher as he is a student. "I frequently 'hear' him in my mind coaching me while I am turning a challenging bowl and deciding on its style and design," Lou said. And Art's youthful spirit and energy is a great reminder to never lose our curiosity. "He is interested in everything and excited about learning. I can say without hesitation that Art is the most interesting person I have met," says Lou.

Want to meet Art? We are happy to announce that Art Grabowski has been invited to be a featured guest at Fresh Cut, our first annual wood turning symposium, October 30-November 1, 2015. Art will be displaying some of his work and is very excited to connect with other wood turners.

Among the many people that inspired Art, his older brother may have been the first. Says Art, "His story was: whatever interests you, put it in your hand and really look it over." Good advice for amateur and expert woodworkers and wood turners alike. Come join us at Fresh Cut, grab a chunk of wood, look it over, then let the chips fly!