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Melrose man gets hooked on intarsia

“I’ve been involved with wood all my life, either building, refinishing, or painting,” said Melrose native Vern Hollermann.  So it seemed natural that his retirement career would also involve wood, but in a rather unusual form.Vern is an expert in intarsia (pron. in-TAR-zha), a European art form dating to the 15th century.  It involves joining together pieces of wood of various types and colors to form pictures. His hobby began in 2006, when he saw a picture of an intarsia eagle in a woodworking magazine and decided his son Scott, who works in a Boy Scout camp, would like one.  He picked out some dark walnut for the eagle’s body and some white aspen for the head and tail feathers and began creating. “After I made the eagle, I just got hooked on it,” he said. “I looked on the internet and found a catalog of plans.”  Now a drawer in his small, tidy workshop contains plans for angels, saints, sunflowers, wine bottles, deer, a cornucopia, and an aviary full of birds. He buys the plans along with the copyright, sometimes modifying them to suit a client or his artistic inclinations.   A catalog of plans sits on his workbench, tempting intarsia artists with everything from horses and cowboys to dinosaurs and elephants to an 800-piece Last Supper. “I’ve seen pictures of a whole wall eight feet high and 10 feet long,” he said.  “I haven’t made one of those, but it would be a challenge, and I’d be up for the challenge.” He gets most of his wood locally. “I can get Western red cedar at a local lumberyard.  They allow me to go into their wood piles and pick out the colors I think I need for the project I’m working on.”  Some comes from Menards, and some, such as yellow Brazilian satin wood and reddish–orange African padauk, he has to order from a wood specialist in Arizona. He notes that even walnut is expensive and getting harder to find. Once he has the pieces cut with a band saw and scroll saw, he works on them further to give them dimension, using a dremel and sander.   He has seen the work of other intarsians, and doesn’t care for those who merely join flat pieces of wood. “I’m a perfectionist,” Vern says.  “I want everything to look just right.  When an artist paints a picture, they bring out the colors with shading, and that’s basically what I do in wood.”  It means that every bird and flower has shape and form and stands out from its background. “If I need to bring out the dimension of eagle feathers, I sculpt them a little bit to bring out the real look.”  He points out the veins on each leaf and petal of a group of sunflowers. “Rather than leaving petals flat, I’ll curve them to give them some added dimension.” He also says, “The grain makes a difference to me, because it adds character to the piece.  If I’m doing the feathers on a bird, I want the grain in the wood to fit the feathers, or the grain in the wood to show an angel’s hair.”  Color is also important.  The Brazilian satin wood came into play when he made his son Mike a replica of his yellow Cobra sports car.  He used blue pine to create bluebirds, Western red cedar for deer.  He  finishes his pieces only with lacquer, which further brings out the color and grain of the wood. He uses paint sparingly, such as a drop to highlight the eye of an eagle, or the windshield and wheels of the Cobra. His work goes to family, neighbors, and anyone else interested in his art. One of his customers has bought five pieces from him, all depicting birds, because his wife likes bird.  “I made one with cardinals on it and took it to his house to show him.  Before I walked out the door, he said, ‘Leave it here.  I’ll buy it.’ Now I’m working on an eagle with a 50-inch wing span for his house.”  Another customer wants a sports-oriented graduation gift for his son, so Vern is looking over his baseball patterns.  He created an intarsia of a neighbor’s beagle, matching the colors and changing the facial features a bit to create the dog’s likeness perfectly.  He made a plaque depicting a wine bottle and grapes for the local John Dough pizza shop, adding the owners’ name and wedding date. He did the same for his daughter, Debbie, and husband, Ernie. Vern may take as many as 22 hours to create a piece. A small item might take 10 or 15 hours, a larger one longer, especially if a lot of texturing and three-dimensional work is involved.  Pointing out a piece with three sunflowers, he says, “There are 22 petals in each sunflower, and it takes time to form each one.” He honed his woodworking skills by working for his family’s company, Hollermann Manufacturing, which made church furniture.  Then he was a self-employed painter and paper hanger. From 1992 to 2004 he was the Religious Education Director for St. Mary’s parish, Melrose.  “So I’ve basically been involved in wood of one sort or another, whether finishing wood or making things, all my adult life.” He and wife, Barb, have four children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. In the summer, intarsia takes a back seat to camping and traveling, usually with the Hart to Hart camping club. Vern says, “If I were younger, I’d advertise on the internet and have my own website.  But at the age of 70, I’m not into money or making a living off it.  I’m into the pure enjoyment and the mind-soothing comfort, satisfaction, and gratitude I get doing this.”

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