‘A dying art’?

Jim Kueppers, 69, holds up a photo of a bunch of young woodcarvers, and the man who introduced him to woodcarving. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Jim Kueppers works on a chipmunk during a woodcarvers group that meets Tuesdays at the South St. Paul Senior Center. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Kathy Beatty, 70, chats with Larry Krech, 88, while working on a toy soldier ornament during a woodcarving group that meets Tuesdays at the South St. Paul Senior Center. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Carvers bring wood to life in South St. Paul

With his gloved left hand, Jim Kueppers grips a rodent-shaped chunk of wood, pulling the knife in his right toward him to scrape off thin chips, chiseling out the shape he sees in it: a life-like chipmunk. The shavings cling to his jeans or flutter to the ground to be swept up later.

He wears the glove to keep from cutting himself, but cuts inevitably happen.

“That’s part of carving,” says Kueppers, 69. “You’re going to nick yourself every so often.”

The Inver Grove Heights resident was one of three carvers at a recent weekly gathering at the South St. Paul Senior Center. The group has been meeting for nearly two decades.

Interest in whittling is dwindling, and the group’s lost many members over the years. But about half a dozen retired folks still regularly attend to chip away at a project, get help or just enjoy the company of other carvers.

On a recent Tuesday, the satisfying, soft scraping sound of metal sculpting wood was often interrupted by conversations about golf, carving and speculation as to why so-and-so didn’t show up that morning.

“It’s just people helping people do things,” Kueppers says. “There’s always somebody that will help you.”

A longtime carver

Kueppers started carving as a kid around the playgrounds of St. Paul, receiving instruction from a carver who always had time for kids. Kueppers describes Lawrence Unger as “a guy that died too young.”

Among his tools, glasses and wood glue, Kueppers keeps newspaper clippings and photos of Unger, who worked at the former Mattocks elementary school at James and Macalester.

“I probably followed that guy around until he died,” Kueppers says, pointing out a yellowing, taped-up image of a gray-haired, bespectacled Unger surrounded by carved and painted wood ducks, painted fish carvings and two young woodcarvers. “I was about 20 years old when he died.”

The first thing Kueppers ever carved was a duck. He took a break from the craft while raising children, but came back to it later in life.

“(Woodcarving) was always something you could do,” says Kueppers, who’s entered work in an international show. “You can do it ‘til you die, basically. It’s a good hobby.”

Always carried a knife

Part of the hobby is being prepared for those idle moments. That’s probably why Larry Krech usually has a blade on his person.

“When I was a kid, I always had a knife in my pocket; I was always doing something with wood,” he says. In a red Levi’s button-up shirt, glasses and a camo baseball cap, the 88-year-old South St. Paul man pulled a knife out of his jeans pocket. He inherited the knife from his father-in-law.

Krech says he was self-taught, learning by a lot of trial and error.

He’s come to enjoy relief carving, where he gouges out hunks of wood from a slab and carefully chisels out details on that flat surface, rather than carving all sides of the wood to fashion a sculpture. He selects the size of chisel, gauge or knife (to pick off big pieces or get into small corners) by just feeling it out -- “by nature.” He often uses patterns or pictures to get started, but he improvises as he goes.

“You take little chips out until you get what you want,” he says, adding that the end product isn’t always what he first planned. “You start carving and it’s a surprise what you get.”

Switching between an impression of flowers and butterflies and paring wood for the wings of an eagle, he admits he hasn’t reflected much on why he’s pursued a lifetime of carving -- it just seems innate to him.

“I just do it,” says Krech, who used to run a tire business in Minneapolis. “I started doing it, and that’s it.”

A retiree’s hobby

Kathy Beatty, 70, started carving about five years ago, picking up the hobby in her retirement.

The Inver Grove Heights resident never had a hobby before. It was “nothing but work, work, work,” she says, as she kept busy as a mother and a teacher in South St. Paul.

Beatty’s husband’s uncle introduced her to carving. The uncle died while she was in the middle of a project, and so she had friends guide her to help her finish it.

Now, she carves Christmas ornaments for her grandchildren and friends every year, starting out with a rough cutout of something, such as a toy soldier, then scraping, sanding and woodburning the details. She finishes her projects off with acrylic paint, where scales, feathers or fur come to life.

When she sees an amorphous block of wood, she tries to envision what it could be: a sunfish? a chipmunk? a hummingbird?

“There’s someone living in there, and I’m going to go and find them,” she says.

She says woodcarving is a way to “forget about everything, relax and end up with this creative project.”

“Carving is something I do for myself,” she says. “It’s a break from the normal routine of life.”

A dying art?

Woodcarving used to be “what guys do,” but it did catch on among women, say the three local woodcarvers. These days, though, they’re seeing fewer and fewer people in the various carving groups they all attend.

Fellow carvers have passed away, and it’s not often that new members join. Kueppers says carvers in other meetups he attends are all retired, even in the about 60-person gathering in Newport.

All three of them spoke about the carvers who didn’t make it that day, and the “unbelievable” things they’ve accomplished by manipulating wood. Beatty mentioned incredibly realistic fish one man makes, and the quarter-inch wood earrings Krech meticulously crafts.

Although Beatty herself is a relative newcomer, she isn’t sure that what’s a hobby to her, and even more to others, will be passed on.

“There’s a part of me that wonders if it’s a dying art,” she says. “I think life just gets too busy.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

If you go

What: Woodcarvers Group
When: 9 a.m. Tuesdays
Where: South St. Paul Senior Center, 100 Seventh Ave. N., South St. Paul.
Who: All are welcome
Why: Newcomers are welcome to join this talented and skilled group; long-time carvers are happy to help newbies get started or get help with a project.
Cost: It's free
For more information, call 651-306-3690.

See more photos at the gallery link below.

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