A Creative Life
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
A CREATIVE LIFE
While cutting up a chicken last week, the knife got away from me and nicked my hand. As I searched for a bandage, I thought of a moment about 10 years ago with my late father.
In that scene with my dad, he and I sat on the stoop of the work shed in his backyard in Pawnee Rock. Using a pocket knife, he chipped bark from a tree limb, the first step in making one of his walking sticks.
Chips flew through the air and landed near our feet. After a lifetime of working with wood, Dad offered a bit of advice, “When you use a knife, never cut toward yourself – or you’ll be sorry you did.”
“Oh,” I said, pointing to a recent cut on his thumb, “Is that what happened there?”
“Yes,” he laughed, “that’s what happened there.”
When he retired as a rural mail carrier in the early ‘90s, Dad started making walking sticks. He didn’t have a market for them, or any desire to sell them, he just liked to make them. Downed tree limbs were free and plentiful. As a carpenter for more than 50 years, wood was ingrained in his life.
My dad had always been creative. He made beautiful furniture. And for years, he carried a camera and set out to photograph every courthouse and post office in Kansas. As a collector of junk, Dad used scraps of iron and wood to make sculptures for his yard and flower gardens.
Making things made him happy.
Most of us find this to be true. We like to create, to have something, a finished product, to show for our time and for our lives. We like to draw, write, build, bake, sew. It is satisfying to construct a cedar chest from a stack of lumber, or to start with squares of cloth and end up with a beautiful quilt.
After stripping the bark, Dad sanded and varnished his sticks. He used a set of die stamps to imprint humorous or inspirational quotes. On one cane, he attached 10-inch nails using eyehooks. Some had door knobs as handles. He signed many of them, often noting that they were made in Pawnee Rock. Each stick had its own story to tell.
Dad wouldn’t have called it art, but his work was a form of grassroots or outsider art. He wasn’t a trained artist, he just made stuff, including hundreds, yes, hundreds of walking sticks.
After he and his wife, Betty, moved to an apartment in Great Bend, Dad continued his hobby. His pickup truck became his workshop. He’d sit in the passenger seat, door open, feet on the ground, and he’d chip away at bark or sand sticks.
A few years later, aging caught up with him. He slowed down on the walking sticks and started a new project. He didn’t get out of the apartment on his own anymore to stock up on supplies, but in typical Dad fashion, he used what he had. He began to decorate the bills of baseball caps that were in his closet.
He glued coins and tiny plastic figures onto the caps: cowboys and Indians, squirrels and bears. One had a round ham bone with a bonus nickel inside. If you didn’t know my dad and his sense of humor, you’d think, “Well that’s just odd.” And in truth, it was odd, but hey, that was my dad.
In his last few years when we went out for lunch, Dad would grab one of his sticks and put on a hat, maybe the one with the ham bone. He was a walking grassroots art display.
My father and his peculiarities had often embarrassed me, especially as a teenager, but luckily, I outgrew those feelings. His eccentricities were a part of who he was. He was colorful and human. He hid emotions, but they were revealed by his art. I realize now that he was not concerned with the approval of others. He made things for the sheer joy of creating them.
I have dozens of his walking sticks, some crooked, some straight. One is from our backyard Kentucky coffee bean tree. Each stick tells its own story, but the underlying narrative is the story of my father, a man who created until the end.
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh