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Man Carved out new Retirement Hobby

Elk River man discovered a love for wood carving later in life.

By Karen Flaten

Reuben Nelson of Elk River has both a passion and a talent for wood carving, but he didn’t discover it until later in life. And it all started with a chance meeting with a carver while wintering in Arizona.

After Reuben retired in 1997 from Time Savers Inc. in the Twin Cities, he and his wife, Janet, found time to travel. They soon discovered that they loved Arizona, and by 2005, they were spending winters there. The Apache Junction area was a warm respite from the harsh Minnesota winters.

Reuben Nelson with some of his wood carving tools and some current projects at his apartment at Elk River Senior Living. Photo by Karen Flaten

While checking out some of the interesting things to do in Arizona, Reuben met a gentleman who was a wood carver. Pretty soon, Reuben had joined the Golden Vista Woodcarvers, and was learning everything he could about wood carving.

Reuben’s creations vary from small animal carvings to representations of people, especially character “types,” and sometimes celebrities. He also enjoys doing relief carving, in which the subject of the carving is brought out of a flat panel of wood.

“Relief carving is more like a plaque,” Reuben explained. One of his favorite carvings is a relief carving of praying hands.

“I’ve made one of the praying hands for many people,” said Reuben. “It’s very popular.”

Reuben is also very proud of his covered bridge relief carvings, as well as a special one of a barn against a blue sky.

“My wife, Janet, really liked that one,” Reuben said, remembering his wife of 65 years, who passed away in November of 2021. “She thought that really turned out nice.”

The carvings adorn his studio apartment at Elk River Senior Living, where he also keeps a small carving bench with his sharp carving knives, each inserted into its own specific slot. “There is a large shop downstairs, and some equipment,” said Reuben, “but a lot of these little ones I can do right here.” Reuben pointed to a small stylized carving of a cat. “I just carved that one last night,” he said.

Over the bed in his apartment, Reuben has installed a long shelf with his characters, many of them in western garb or representing western icons. There are a few cowboys, some Indians from various tribes and in a variety of dress, several rancher-types, as well as some other cultural icons such as Elvis Presley. Under the shelf, a partially coiled rope is hung, with relief carvings on each side. Across the room, on top of a bookcase, the western theme continues with several buildings – a cabin, shed, outhouse, and even a windmill are displayed. Another shelf shows off carvings of larger wild animals, such as moose and bear. An airplane painted blue with a propeller made of driftwood is hung next to the wild animals. “That was a piece of driftwood that looked like a propeller,” said Reuben. “It got me thinking, and I made the plane to match.”

“Sometimes when I find driftwood it gives me an idea,” said Reuben, pointing out other pieces that were inspired by driftwood. Other types of wood, as well as designs he sees, also inspire him. “I let the wood tell me what it wants to be,” he said, showing off birds, a cliff or mountain sculpture, and even a strange mythical creature. “You have to work with the wood,” he said.

Above the kitchen cabinets is another display of animals, especially birds – shore birds with long legs and long bills, some with wings outstretched, some standing with wings folded. Some birds are painted – from grey and white geese and herons to a turquoise peacock – and some have been left in the wood’s natural color.

Some of Reuben’s carvings include figurines (above), buildings (lower left) and relief sculptures like this boat (lower right). Photos by Karen Flaten

Reuben’s skills extend to other woodworking projects as well. Above the refrigerator is a beautiful custom cabinet made of natural-finished pine, with some dark accents. “We needed extra space for groceries, so I made this cabinet,” said Reuben.

Outside the door to his apartment, two shelves fitted into a corner display a few small bird carvings. Most are painted bright colors; some have stands; all are unique carvings in and of themselves. On a small shelf in his apartment, he displays his stylized cats, with more small bird carvings suspended from the shelf. In the middle of the shelf is a photo of his wife, Janet, who Reuben misses terribly.

“I spend a lot of time carving,” said Reuben. “I only sleep a few hours. It (the carving) keeps me busy.”

Janet was an artist in her own right, working with stained glass, ceramics and yarn, as well as paper tole, the Victorian art of handcrafting three-dimensional pictures from flat prints. Reuben points out a framed three-dimensional picture hanging on his wall that Janet made for him using the paper tole technique. It depicts a bald eagle just about to land on a tree branch, an American flag flying in the background. “God Bless America” is inscribed on the brass nameplate. The picture has pride of place in the center of the wall, with Reuben’s carvings displayed nearby.

Reuben grew up on a farm in northeastern South Dakota, near the town of Britton. He moved to Minnesota after his tour of duty in the army during the Korean War. When he returned home from the service in 1954, “there were no jobs,” he said. Plus, he was looking for a pretty girl. He found both a job and a girl in Minneapolis, and made his home in the northern Twin Cities suburbs of Crystal and Champlin with his wife, Janet, for over 50 years. Together, Reuben and Janet raised 4 children, all of whom still live in or near the Twin Cities and keep in touch with him regularly. And, although he misses his wife every day, he has found a nice community at Elk River Senior Living.

“There’s always something going on here,” said Reuben, of the many events and amenities at the community. Celebrations, games, even happy hours are just some of the options for meeting with friends and neighbors. The community boasts a craft room, club room with pool table, and a workshop in their list of amenities.

“I can use the shop downstairs if I have a big project,” said Reuben of the workshop. But he prefers small projects to larger ones, and states that “many of these little carvings I can do right here in the apartment.”

Some of Reuben’s many wood carvings. Photos by Karen Flaten

Reuben waves to a neighbor who passes his door. Teddy, the bichon-poodle mix who was his wife’s dog, rushes to the door with a short bark.

“Everybody loves Teddy,” said Reuben. And it’s true. Residents and staff at Elk River Senior Living enjoy seeing Teddy around, and often stop to pet him. “He’s good at socializing,” said Reuben. “And he keeps me company, too.”

Soon, Teddy quiets down and Reuben pulls more carvings out of a box filled with relief carvings that he created. The carvings show many different subjects - sailing ships, horses’ heads, and covered bridges, many of the stylized carvings are done with unique backgrounds to give each a special look.

“I’m going back to South Dakota to visit some family soon. I think I’ll bring a few of these along,” he said. Reuben is proud of his carving, and loves to share it with people.

People often comment that he should have a show of his work, but Reuben is not interested. He participated in shows with the Golden Vista Woodcarvers in Arizona over the years, but for now, “I just like to putz with it,” he said.

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