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Sharing a passion for carving

Fargo man has carved wood for more than 40 years

By Lisa Ridder

Wayne poses with two of his award winning carvings, a panda bear and an African elephant. Photo by Lisa Ridder

Growing up just outside of Oakes, North Dakota, Wayne Hankel never dreamed that participating in 4-H would be the beginning of a career path. A path that would lead him to his long career as a County Extension Agent working with 4-H and youth programs. Wayne also didn’t know that his journey would result in a passion for wood carving.

Wayne’s love for carving has allowed him to become very accomplished and skilled at the craft, and he has been able to pass on that knowledge to others. Wayne is passionate about education, teaching, working with the elderly and youth, giving back to the community and donating items to charity. His love of wood carving has allowed him to do all of these things.

As a 4-H Agent, part of Wayne’s job was to organize activities for adults and kids, often using local talent as instructors. He was asked to set up classes on wood carving. During his search for an instructor he was directed to Ken Brock, of Fort Ransom, North Dakota.

“Wood carving saved his life,” said Wayne. “That is what Ken told me. As he dealt with health issues, wood carving allowed Ken to focus on something other than his health.”

When Wayne went to evaluate the instructor he was provided a project to try carving.

“I was satisfied enough with the results, and it inspired me to do more,” said Wayne. “I did my first carving with a jack knife. And I’ve been carving ever since.”

“Ever since” has been about 40+ years.

“I found that it provided a good relaxation opportunity,” said Wayne. “It also provided me with an opportunity to make friends with other wood carvers, exchanging ideas.”

Wayne poses with his Ruddy Duck carving, which was carved from red cedar. Contributed photo

One of those new friends was the late Vern Spooner, a well-known wildlife carver from Casselton, North Dakota.

“I love wildlife, so it was a common interest we shared,” said Wayne.

One of the many wood carvings he has on display at his home is one of Spooner’s, which was a retirement gift from the Extension Staff and Southeast Area 4-H Leaders.

Both Hankel and Spooner are well known for their bird carvings.

Growing up, Wayne competed in 4-H events. In later years he participated in wood carving competitions. During those carving competitions he has scored first place awards for carvings such as a panda bear, an African elephant and pheasants.

Wayne enjoys variety, challenge and knowledge. He’s read many magazines and books on woodworking and also took an oil painting class.

“The painting class taught me to visualize, observe the world around me and to appreciate it,” said Wayne.

He’s also learned to adapt patterns to get the desired position for the piece he will be working on. “It’s easy to do now using the computer,” said Wayne.

Another way he has honed his craft is by participating in various groups. He was a charter member of the Sheyenne Valley Arts and Crafts Association for many years and has been a member of the Red River Valley Wood Carvers’ Club (RRVWCC) for over 25 years.

Wayne’s carving on display at Immanuel Lutheran Church in North Fargo. Photo by Louise M. Tegtmeier

During the RRVWCC meetings they have “show and tell” time, where they can show a project they have been working on and discuss it with other members.

“It’s nice to get to pick their brains a bit,” Wayne said. The group has carved the Viking display located in the entry of the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota. Pre-covid-19, members would occasionally visit local nursing homes to visit with residents and show them their projects.

Since he loves working with people and sharing his love for wood carving, it was a natural fit to teach community education classes. Wayne has taught Moorhead Community Education classes for more than 25 years.

Wayne loves working with youth groups. If he didn’t have a group to teach, he would make his own when he held annual summer “Grandpa Camp” with his grandkids.

“(My grandkids) were exposed to wood carving, wood burning, acrylic painting and other crafts,” he said. “The purpose was to develop enough skills so that now and later in life they know they can do it.”

His grandson, Dylan, remembered his Grandpa Camp fondly.

“My grandpa’s house was always a fun place to be, partly because he’s my grandpa, and partly because it was a chance to do something my grandpa was passionate about. Grandpa Camp was a few days in the summer that I got to come up to his house and do something different for a bit,” said Dylan. “Most years, I did some sort of wood carving project that is still proudly on display at home. I was able to learn a pastime that I will be able to use for many years to come.”

Riley Moon takes a break for laughter and discussion after trying his luck at carving under the direction and watchful eye of Wayne Hankel. Photo by Lisa Ridder

During the photo shoot for this article, Wayne was visited by Riley Moon of Moorhead. Since it was nice weather, Wayne decided they would sit outside and he could show him the basics of wood carving. “The cut was not difficult, because it was a straight cut,” said Riley. “It requires a lot of patience.”

Wayne’s advice for those wanting to learn the craft – do your homework and practice, practice, practice.

“I encourage people to take a class to get the basics, as it saves time in figuring out how to do things. Few people are natural carvers, it takes practice. I read a lot of magazines and books about wood carving,” said Wayne. “I made a point to know other wood carvers so I could pick their brains. I would encourage others to do the same.”

Wayne noted his home is filled with pieces he has created. He has made several hundred carvings, including a wood chest for his wife, a pair of pheasants for his son, bison for himself and each of his children.

Approximately 80 percent of what he currently makes gets donated to hospitalized children, sick and terminally ill patients and various charities. He also made larger wood carvings and donated them to Immanuel Lutheran Church in North Fargo and St. John Lutheran Church in Oakes, North Dakota.

“The donation to St. John’s was in memory of my parents, grandparents and other relatives,” said Wayne.

The carving has made an impact on members and visitors of the church.

“This art piece has helped us faithfully and reverently teach and preach the Christian faith. This carving gives us an artistic embodiment of a beloved image in our rural congregation -- Jesus the Good Shepard,” said Rev. Chris Brademeyer; St. John’s Lutheran Church, Oakes, North Dakota.

Photo of Viking carving on display at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Wayne and other members of the RRVWCC worked on this carving together. Photo by Lisa Ridder

Wayne has a long list of accomplishments. He has exhibited at the Red River Valley International Wood Arts Show in Fargo and also at the Sheyenne Valley Arts and Crafts Show in Fort Ransom. He’s participated in many classes to sharpen his skills. Photos of his work are included in the book Sundogs and Sunflowers, which was published by the North Dakota Council on the Arts. He has also taught several classes for the North Dakota Arts Council.

Wayne is an educator at heart. He estimated that he’s taught over 2,500 students of all ages. He always has time to teach someone that is interested about wood working. He could tell you about the various type of wood he’s carved (basswood being a favorite), he’ll tell you about different types of carving and which interested him the most.

“What I enjoy most about carving is that I can stop and start as needed. I can have several projects going at one time. Honestly, I don’t know what life would be like if I didn’t have a pastime. It’s relaxing and challenging, but also something I can put down and come back to. It occupies my mind. I really don’t know how I would have gotten through staying at home during COVID-19, without a pastime,” he said.

With all this activity, one would expect Wayne to have a big shop he carves at, but that’s definitely not the case.

“I often carve in the house or outside, weather permitting,” he said. “My wife is a quilter. Sometimes I carve in the living room and she quilts. We often have good natured arguments as to who leaves behind more wood chips or quilting threads.”

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