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A Creative Life

January 22nd, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


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

columns, Kansans, life on the ground

  1. J.P.
    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:40 | #1

    You have to be chosen, to have such a colorfull dad Cheryl.

  2. January 22nd, 2013 at 12:48 | #2

    What great memories you have of your Dad Cheryl, wonderful article.

  3. Flips
    January 22nd, 2013 at 13:26 | #3


  4. January 22nd, 2013 at 13:48 | #4

    My favorite line, “He wasn’t a trained artist, he just made stuff…” Sometimes those are the best kinds of art.

  5. terrence l keenan
    January 22nd, 2013 at 16:26 | #5

    great story….dads are really special…my dad’s birthday would have been today on the 22nd….he was born in 1886 in a blizzard in stafford county…thanks again for the neat story…

  6. Karla K
    January 22nd, 2013 at 17:18 | #6

    Wonderful story Cheryl. It brings back memories of my mom. She made stuff also. You are the best kind of writer.

  7. Vivian
    January 22nd, 2013 at 21:45 | #7

    “He made things for the sheer joy of creating them.” Now he was a real artist. I would have loved to have seen him out with walking stick and cap. What a wonderful, happy story.

  8. January 22nd, 2013 at 21:50 | #8

    Thanks so much, J.P., Nancy, Flips, WenDee, Terrence, Karla and Vivian!
    I always appreciate the feedback. 🙂

  9. Janet Fish
    January 23rd, 2013 at 00:17 | #9

    Cheryl, have you ever shown those to Roslyn at The Grassroots Art Center in Lucas? The walking sticks and the hats? That really IS grassroots, untrained art. They might like to see those. Maybe they’d do a show featuring his work. If you go out there, take some with you.

  10. heineken160
    January 23rd, 2013 at 08:00 | #10

    “…wood was ingrained in his life.”

  11. EmilyO
    January 23rd, 2013 at 09:57 | #11

    Ahhh Cheryl, this brings back memories of my dad – a geologist. In our travels around the country he would display, to my brother and I, earth’s artwork in the mountains, canyons, plains as something to enjoy and appreciate instead of something to exploit. With my artist mom, we got quite an education and appreciation. Thanks for the memories.

  12. Mike Cranston
    January 23rd, 2013 at 11:04 | #12

    It is funny, everbody wants to fit in, but the people we remember most seems to be the ones that dont fit in. I had a peculiar dad and a motherinlaw too. Such great people…the way they lived are very much a part of what I am now. People looked funny at both of them when they were around, in the end they touched our lives deeper than the so called folks who try to fit in.
    Thanks for sharing your dad with us.

  13. January 29th, 2013 at 19:28 | #13

    Hi Cheryl,
    Janet F. emailed me about your article. Your father must have been an extraordinary gentleman. Let’s visit sometime about your dad’s creations.
    Perhaps at sometime in the future we could do an exhibit at the Grassroots Art Center.

  14. January 29th, 2013 at 19:31 | #14

    OK, cool.Thanks, Rosslyn.