Fulfillment through sculpture

Hands that have seen 90 years of use held a chisel and mallet, knocking out pieces of wood in a sculpture the artist hopes will look like flames when finished.
John Gaeddert did his work on a warm June afternoon in the woodshop at Kidron Bethel Village in North Newton. The Kidron resident said the shop has equipment and space there, as well as machinery, such as sanders, saws and a drill press. The artist has his own chisels and mallets, however.
Gaeddert, who turned 90 Feb. 7, enjoys creating his sculptures, most of which are abstract made from varieties of wood. These include medium-to-hard Kansas woods, such as Osage orange, walnut and cedar, as well wood from Colorado, like bristlecone pine.
Gaeddert enjoys his craft.
?It has given me a fulfillment of something that I recognized was there but never explored earlier on in my life, and I feel it gave me fulfillment and also recognition as an artist,? said Gaeddert, who is a retired pastor.
He was a pastor for 35 years, retiring in 1989. Gaeddert started in Hender?son, Neb., and then went to the Congo through the Mennonite Central Committee. His next place to work was Tabor Church in the Goessel area, and then he served at First Mennonite Church in Halstead.
Gaeddert said he?s fought recognizing himself as an artist because he doesn?t have any formal training.
?One does it, I hope, humbly and also with recognition of one?s accomplishments and talent ? God-given talent,? he said.
The primary wood he?s used is Osage orange, which has a deep orange color to it. Gaeddert is known for his work with that wood. In fact, he had a show at Tabor College in Hillsboro that centered on pieces he made from Osage orange.
?It?s amazing how beautiful it is,? Gaeddert said, sitting at his and his wife, Mary?s, dining room table in their home decorated with a variety of his sculptures.
Some of the wooden sculptures in their home are abstract verticals with pointed columns reaching for the heavens, while some are realistic, including one of his first sculptures, which is housed in their bedroom.
This sculpture is of a man and woman with an umbrella above their heads, which Gaeddert calls ?The Immigrants.? The lamp sculpture is of his great-grandparents, Dietrich and Elizabeth Gaeddert, Menno?nites who immigrated from Russia. Dietrich was pastor at a church in rural Inman. Mary made the shade, which is the sculpture couple?s umbrella.
?That?s crazy I had to think it had to be functional, you know,? Gaeddert said of using the sculpture as a lamp.
Now, Gaeddert makes art for art?s sake, saying it?s therapy for him. He created that piece shortly before he and Mary were married; they?ve been wed for 63 years. The piece was made from a porch corner post that was 4 by 4 inches and 4 feet long.
Gaeddert said he took a 20-year hiatus from creating art when he went to seminary in Chicago, but he?s had a creative spirit for a long time.
?It?s been a part of me for 65 years,? Gaeddert said. ?I did not have any formal training anywhere in school. It just occurred to me I might like it, and I did. It worked for me.?
In making his pieces, Gaeddert said the wood speaks to him, telling him what it should be with its shapes.
?Each piece has its own character suggesting the form, certain contours, intriguing blemishes and various colors,? Gaeddert?s artist card stated. ?The Plains have greatly influenced John, for he grew up in rural Kansas and has spent most of his life as a teacher and a pastor of Mennonite churches in the Great Plains territory. In his retirement, he has found the opportunity to use his wood sculptures to express some of the simplicity, gentleness, growth and relationship themes that have been important to him in his ministry over the years.?
What Gaeddert does is release the beauty and character of the wood, the card stated.
?Often as you work with a piece, some things appear to help determine what the shape will eventually be,? Gaeddert said.
Wood for his art comes from a variety of sources.
?I?ve had the good fortune of knowing Paul Unruh ? he makes wood for heating his home,? Gaeddert said, adding Unruh has supplied much of the wood Gaeddert has used, which is mostly Osage orange.
?He has an eye for what might work for me,? Gaeddert said.
Gaeddert also has acquired some wood from Colorado, as his son-in-law Allan Bartel was director of the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp near Colorado Springs. The North Newton artist also acquires wood from people with fallen trees or when the icy fingers of winter cause limbs to break.
When Gaeddert was a youth, Osage orange was known as ?hedge,? and people used hedge to make posts and for heating, he said. The artist has learned to use the hedge posts, saying he assumes many of the posts are 35 to 40 years old based on the rings in the wood.
?Posts don?t rot like other woods do,? Gaeddert said. ?They?re very sturdy.?
Gaeddert doesn?t know how many sculptures he?s made, but he guessed around 1,000 ? from small pieces to large sculptures, such as The Plainsman near the beginning of the walking path at Bethel College in North Newton. The Plainsman is about 12 feet tall.
Jim Stucky Photo?graphics has taken photos of Gaeddert?s work, which he puts in photo albums. This visual record of his work was a gift from his children.
?I?m now on my eighth volume,? Gaeddert said.
Each album holds about 50 to 60 photos.
In addition to The Plainsman, another large sculpture is a bear made from a fallen tree at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp 25 years ago.
?I did that in three weeks full time,? Gaeddert said. ?It was right after I retired. Retirement has been occupied with wood sculpting and has been a great satisfaction.?
Other pieces of his work are displayed in a variety of locations, such as a few pieces at Bethel College, one at Prairie View in Newton, several at Kidron Bethel and a buffalo sculpture at Camp Mennoscah near Murdock. The Plainsman was made from a dead tree, and at one point had to have a concrete base added as the roots had rotted; as the roots rotted, the sculpture began to lean.
His ?The Open Hand? is at Faith Mennonite Church in Newton. This sculpture was created from a pine tree that was removed when the congregation added on to the church.
One sculpture, called ?Hard Winter Wheat? made from black walnut on display in his home, took Best of Show at the Newton Presbyterian Manor?s Art is Ageless contest. A photo of the art piece was featured in June in the Art is Ageless 2008 calendar.
Gaeddert has had the opportunity to work with wood sculptor and ceramicist Paul Friesen, retired visual arts professor at Hesston College, and Gaeddert wanted to give Friesen recognition.
?He and I spent a month together,? Gaeddert said. ?He allowed me to work in his studio in Hesston. That was many years ago ? perhaps after retirement.?
In addition to working in the Friesen studio and at Kidron Bethel in a private way, his art has been on public display. He?s a member of the Carriage Factory Gallery in Newton.
?It?s been a very good outlet for me,? Gaeddert said of the gallery.
He and his daughter, Susan Bartel, had a show there one spring in the mezzanine with her paintings and his sculpture. He and Susan also had a show at The Leaf Tea Lounge in Newton a few years ago, which was their first enterprise together.
For about the past 25 to 30 years, he?s also displayed at Bethel College?s Fall Fest.
?I enjoy the outdoors a lot, and I believe in conservation totally, so I use only wood that has already died ? a great source to honor wood,? Gaeddert said. ?Wood is so beautiful and lends itself to uses beyond art that it?s beautiful to be identified with the versatility of wood beyond art. It?s really nice to experience that.?