Discovering the beauty in the grain

GARY HAZELBERG grins as he turns a bowl on his lathe in his workshop. by Hannah Tetzlaff

After turning a new wood and epoxy bowl on his lathe, town of Brooklyn resident Gary Hazelberg added the finishing polish.

And as he witnessed the final product, emotions welled-up in him. He shed a tear, amazed at the beauty that emerged from what was once a burl — a tree growth in which the wood grain grows in a deformed manner.

“I was so excited. I gave a hoot out here [in my wood shop],” Gary said. “… I know it sounds goofy, but … people just have a creative side; obviously, I have a strong one.” 

 Though a burl is typically formed when a tree undergoes stress, such as an injury, virus, fungus, insect infestation or mold growth, and may appear as a blemish on a tree trunk, Gary sees the beauty that can be found within the burl.

“All the grain gets all [wonky and] it’s not straight anymore, so it’s really pretty,” Gary said. “So then I got to look at it and [think], ‘OK, how do I want to cut that thing?’ …  And then, ‘What do I want to make out of it?’ You kind of picture it and you open it up. And of course it’s nature; you never know what you’re going to get … which makes it more fun.”

Gary views that as one of the most enjoyable aspects of woodworking — a hobby he has cherished since he taught himself woodcarving as a high-schooler.

He believes his passion for woodworking stems from growing up in a creative family, with several of his seven siblings pursuing or engaging in art.

“My family’s always been very creative,” Gary said. “My brother graduated with a degree in fine art. His wife is a very talented artist. And it’s just something that’s always [been a part of my life].”

Though he has a passion for woodworking, Gary did not pursue a career in that field. Instead he worked as a salesman for a heating and cooling company and eventually became a sales manager.

Now, Gary is semi-retired as he travels around the country, instructing others on business and sales skills.

But in his spare time, he can be found in his workshop, whittling away wood or turning a bowl on his lathe, which were activities that helped him ease the stress from his work.

TOWN OF BROOKLYN resident Gary Hazelberg  smiles as he holds the epoxy and wood bowl that made him shed a tear. Hannah Tetzlaff photo

“I always say that ‘If I’m not covered in sawdust once a week, you don’t want to be around me. I’m a grumpy guy,’” Gary said with a chuckle.

After years of woodcarving, Gary bought a metal wood lathe from a school district about five years ago and taught himself how to turn wood, creating bowls, urns, pots and more.

“I would say it’s an addiction; I’ve tried to get away from it over the years,” Gary said. “In fact, we used to live in Ripon and in a house that we really liked. And then I just did so much woodworking it was creating dust in the house and [we] said ‘We got to do something else.’ So we moved to a different house [out here in the town of Brooklyn].”

If people were to tour his house, they might see a plethora of his wood creations on display. Gary explained he created a unique dinner table that his wife designed along with a headboard and foot-board. He also made several dressers and other pieces of furniture within the home as well as decorative bowls.

The Given Creations

The products of his handiwork were not for his benefit alone since he shared many carving and bowls with his friends and family as gifts.

Gary explained such gifts ranged from wooden rocking horses for his grandchildren to hand-carved Santas for his mother.

However, when he gives away one of his wood pieces, he is never sure if the individual enjoys the gift. 

“I like giving things away. It’s nice to be able to just give something to somebody and it makes you nervous, whether they really like it or they’re just [being nice],” he said, recalling the year he did not carve a Santa figurine for his mother.

He explained he would carve a lot of Santas years ago, and every year, he would gift one to his mom for Christmas.

“She would never really say much, my mom, so one year, I thought, ‘She doesn’t really care,’ so I didn’t make her one,” Gary said. 

However, when Christmas came around and the family was visiting his mom at the nursing home, his mom asked “Where’s my Santa?”

Gary explained to her that he didn’t think she liked them. The nurses who overheard the exchange corrected him, noting that was not the case.

“Some of the nurses [that] were there go, ‘Oh, no, everybody has to see her Santa that her son carves,’” Gary recalled. “‘She was telling everybody that she was going to get another Santa this year and then you didn’t bring one. She was really mad.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll whip one out quick,’ and I had some that I had made, so I just gave her one.” 

Some of his gifts are not always for such joyous occasions as Christmas or birthdays. Gary explained he carves angels for individuals who may be going through a rough patch in life “and need some love.”

He also carves comfort birds, which he gifts to people who “are having a hard time. And it’s a really relaxing thing. There’s an article that I found [the idea] on that I just copied from a guy that if you rub the [bird’s] tail it just gives you something for your excess energy to do when you’re worried about something. So when someone’s going through a hard time I’ll make them a comfort bird and give it to them. I’ve made a couple dozen of those over the years and given them to other people.”

Despite sharing his wooden pieces with numerous friends and family, Gary still had numerous bowls but no place to store them. He decided to sell them three years ago on Etsy, an online marketplace where individuals can sell their creations.

“The only reason I started the Etsy site — you saw how many bowls [there were]. There’s more,” Gary said. “I mean, my wife has cabinets of them because I just love doing it. So, I ended up with all these bowls and I’ve got to get rid of them. They’ve got to go somewhere.”

Gary also sells his bowls at local shops in Green Lake, such as Green Lake Mercantile and Sassafras, a coffee shop that has his bowls on display for purchase.

Though Gary tries to sell his bowls, he noted he does not make a profit from them since the hours spent and the materials used to create the bowls would price them at several hundred dollars, which is much more than he asks for.

“It doesn’t even pay for the supplies,” Gary said of the money he makes. “[But] it does [bring me joy], to be honest with you.”

Should anyone wonder where Gary may be, they just might find him out in his shop, whittling away at a comfort bird, turning a new bowl or imagining a new wooden creation to try his hand at.