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Carving out his niche in life

By Staff | Aug 2, 2008

Bruce Ankeny holds a block of wood, that is roughly cut out in the shape he wants. He will carve it into the Olympic torch bearer he also holds. All of his carvings are done out of one block of basswood. He used the torch bearer in a recent class he taught.

People look at Bruce Ankeny’s wood carving, see funny characters that remind them of someone they know, and they laugh.

That’s because Ankeny carves wooden caricatures that always bring a smile to those who see them. He has a real passion – and talent – for carving the miniature, humorous people.

“I started back in 1981 or 1982 I believe,” Ankeny says. That was when he went to a large show at Pemberton Auditorium featuring the Blue Earth Wood Carving Club.

“I walked in, saw all the carvings and I was intrigued,” Ankeny says. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to try this'”

He says Blue Earth is blessed to have carving enthusiasts, and one of those was the late Herb Hanson.

“Herb took me under his wing and made sure I had some decent patterns and carving knives, besides teaching me what to do,” Ankeny recalls.

He became a member of the carving club and has belonged ever since. The club meets the second Monday of every month at the Senior Center in Blue Earth. They have around 30 to 35 members from around the area at each meeting, Ankeny says.

Their next big event is the Wood Carvers and Quilt Expo on August 15, 16 and 17 at the Blue Earth Area High School.

Ankeny says he has tried other types of things to carve out of wood, but always comes back to his caricatures.

However, he does have one other specialty – Santas. He has carved a new Santa every year since 1984, and they have become very popular.

“I started by carving six of the same Santa that first year, and now this year I will do 70 of them,” he says with a grin. That is because there are 70 people waiting to buy one from him.

Ankeny first sketches a new Santa design. The next step is to carve several poses of the same Santa, and choose one.

“My wife, Bonnie, and some other people help choose which one I should do,” he says. That choice was made this past week, when a Santa holding a set of snow skis was selected.

Now Ankeny will roughly cut out 70 blocks of basswood and then get busy carving. Bonnie will help with the painting when each is completed.

“Each one is numbered and signed on the back,” he says. Some of his clients have most of the Santas, but only Bonnie has all of them. They are all on display in their home.

With many of his caricature carvings, Ankeny will use a pipe cleaner model and twist it into the shape of the character he wants to create. He will then form a clay model of it, before carving the final wood version.

“It helps to have a visual aid when you actually start carving,” he explains. “Otherwise you don’t know what you might wind up with.”

When the Ankenys added on to their house a few years ago, Bruce made sure that a wood carving studio was included behind the garage.

“I used to work in the basement, under the stairs,” he says. “But I made a pretty good mess there.”

Actually, his original work space was at the dining room table, but says that the first time the knife slipped and put a gouge in the tabletop was the last time he was allowed to do any work there.

Some of his more intricate projects take up to 10 hours to complete. Since he is busy running his store, Ankeny Furniture, acting in plays and singing with the band ‘Red Lipstick,’ people often wonder how he finds time to spend on this hobby.

“I try and work on it as much as I can year-round, but I do a lot more in the fall and winter than the summer,” he says. “I get going on it many evenings and Sunday afternoons.”

He figures carving is something he can do all through his retirement years, although he doesn’t think he will retire anytime soon.

“I am ahead of many carvers, because they didn’t start until they were over 60 and retired,” he says.

He keeps his very first carving in front of him in his workshop.

“It isn’t very good, so I always want to try and do a lot better with each new project,” he says.

With growing demand for his Santas and the popularity of his caricatures, it seems he is succeeding in that goal.