The Two Enchanting Men I Met Yesterday

The first item on my list of things I want to experience in 2018 is to take a woodworking class. (I posted this list yesterday, so if you haven’t read that yet, you may want to start there.) Yesterday I did a few things to get me closer to that.

Woodcraft is a store in Madison that offers a wide variety of classes, so I went there to peruse the store and look at the class list. It was fun to browse the aisles, smell the wood, and peek may head into the classroom. Ideas danced through my head of furniture pieces and cutting boards that I could maybe make over the upcoming years. It was exciting!

The night before I was looking on-line for different woodworkers in the area. I wanted to talk with someone who knows the craft, could show me their pieces, and could tell me about their passion for the process. I found a little shop in Mineral Point, Wisconsin called Against the Grain. I was debating going home to take a catnap or getting on the road to visit this store. Something in me really urged me to go, so I listened to it.

45 minutes later I parked my car in a small lot near their Main Street, not a soul was out walking (it was only 12 degrees outside), snowflakes were lightly dancing through the air, and my sleepiness turned to excitement.

Mineral Point is a very unique artists community. Right now there are 21 resident artists there with galleries, many of them also have their studios attached. This spring another 3 artists will set up shop there. It’s historical, eclectic, humble and beautiful.

Against the Grain was on the corner, some crystals hanging in the window, and a historic plaque on the exterior. Walking in the creaky door brought me into a world of beautiful wooden sculptures and ornate quilts. The sculptures were completely different than anything I had ever seen before – many were fish, very smooth and expressive. I couldn’t even wrap my head around how these pieces were created! A few minutes later I met the man behind the creations. Don Mahieu. We spoke for nearly an hour!

He started out telling me about the history of the store, how he got into woodworking, his first wife, her death, and his second wife Joey who is the artist behind the quilts. What struck me most about this first part of our conversation was how he described his passion for woodworking. His father passed away when he was 15, and he was a wreck. His mother’s boyfriend went to Don one day and said ‘here, you need a hobby to focus on’, and he handed him a block of wood and some wood chisels. He had no instruction, didn’t know the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do anything, he just went for it. And when he held that sculpture in his hand for the first time, he knew he’d found it. The thing he loved most. And in his words, ‘from then on I had no choice. I had to do it. It was all I ever did since then.’

How beautiful is that? I am so enamored by people that knew what they wanted to do when they were really young, and they stayed the course. Don said that he had no mentors, he never took a class, he figured it all out on his own, and you can see by his pieces that he’s truly a unique (and brilliant) artist.

He uses pieces of wood that most other artists see as junk – like the burls and heal overs. And he will get a unique piece of wood and just look at it. He lets the image of what it should be come to him, rather than having an idea and searching for the right piece of wood – I thought that was so interesting about him. He lets the wood tell him what to make rather than the other way around.

His main subject are fish, which are hanging in various places around the world! He was truly magical to talk with.

As we were wrapping up he told me that I should check out his friend Bruce’s shop which was just a few doors down. Bruce Howdle is a retired professor and amazing with clay. I was enjoying letting the day unfold so I took his advice and went to Bruce’s shop.

As soon as I opened the door, there stood Bruce with a photographer friend of his. Bruce was short, wore an intense stare along with an apron covered in clay, small round glasses, and a voice that I knew could command a room. I was instantly intimidated… and curious. He greeted me warmly and invited me to walk around his studio while he finished up with the photographer.

A few minutes later he was guiding me around the space, showing me his pieces, pointing out articles about his work, telling me the story of the building, explaining techniques he used to get different effects in the clay, I felt so lucky while he was doing this. Here is this man who is incredibly accomplished, who has an installation on display at the Pushkin museum in Russia, who is spending part of his afternoon giving me a private tour and mini lesson in clay!

He took me next door to where he had some bigger murals and was expanding his space for classes, and then took me downstairs to his studio where he was in the process of making a beer stein on his potters wheel! He changed the shape of the stein, explained what he was doing, divided up some clay because he was working on making 20 of those same steins for a Mexican restaurant down the street, and then asked me to help him with a sink he was making for his goddaughter. It was fun to get a little dirty and help him move this big (and beautiful) sink so he could work on the back of it.

As I helped hold the sink up on its side while carefully making sure not to touch the edges (which were detailed in raised grass patterns – it looked like a field of wheat grass framing the sink. It was gorgeous!) he told me why he was doing certain things, what he was looking for, what the next steps were… It was again, magical.

This man exuded passion for his work, and I could tell that he was a true teacher in every sense of the word. I asked him when he knew he wanted to be an artist. His response was ‘it took a while. It wasn’t until 3rd or 4th grade when I had a teacher that pushed me to do more art that I realized it.’ So here was another one. Another artist that knew in his bones at a very young age that he had to produce art.

He did go on to say that he initially thought he would be a painter, but in his early 20’s he discovered clay and knew that was it. I asked if it was because of a teacher he had and he said ‘of course, that’s how it always happens. They introduced me to the medium and I knew it. In art you just need to keep trying different mediums until you find the one that expresses your passion. Then you’ll know.’ Wow. That comment has really stated with me.

As I thanked him for his time, took a card that lists his classes for the year, and walked out of his store with clay on the bottom of my boots and dust under my fingernails, I was enchanted. These two men allowed me into their worlds for the afternoon, and were absolutely captivating in the way they talked about their art, their lives, and their passions.

I’m always drawn to people that know. People that really know who they are, what they are here to do, and they don’t give a flying fuck what anyone has to say about it on the way. The first person I ever knew like that was my childhood horseback riding instructor Joanne Pembroke, and I think of her often. She’s in the same category as these two men. Joanne was an artist in her own right – she could teach her students so well that their riding, my own included, was an art form. Her students were her clay, her burls from an old oak tree that she got to sculpt. And no matter what life threw at her she always found a way to keep doing what she loved.

Isn’t that what we all want? To feel like we really know what we’re here to do, and to do it no matter what? To feel enchanted by greatness and purpose? I was on a quest to learn about woodworking yesterday afternoon, and I left Mineral Point with so much more than that.

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