Kent Holst’s prizewinning carving, “Summer,” is a bust of a farmer squinting, as if looking over his fields into the sunset. But the 83-year-old artist who created the wood sculpture isn’t squinting; Holst is wide-eyed — and wondering what anyone sees in his creation.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I never entered nothing before,” said Holst, of Anoka. “Somebody thought it looked nice, they carried it away, set it up at a show and next thing they’re telling me is I won. Go figure.”
Earlier this month, Holst, an Air Force veteran, won a regional competition hosted by the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. His work, which was chosen from more than 240 entries, qualifies for the Department of Veterans Affairs national competition, to be held in Reno in October.
“It’s a big deal to win,” said VA spokesman Ralph Heussner, noting that the VA will cover all of Holst’s expenses when he flies to Nevada for the weeklong event.
The National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival recognizes veterans for their creative accomplishments. But the VA emphasizes that the event also demonstrates to the public the therapeutic benefit of the arts.
Wearing bib overalls and goggles with a magnifier above his right eye, Holst is the poster child for seniors who have found peace through the arts.
The modest home he’s lived in for seven years is something of a woodcarver’s dream. The main floor is warm, comfortable and traditional — fully furnished, carpeted and quiet. But he rarely spends time there.
“I’ll come upstairs to the kitchen to heat up some soup, but that’s about it,” he said.
He prefers his basement, which is lined with thick rock walls.
“My tornado house,” he calls it.
There are rooms with tables and shelves lined with hundreds of tools — multiple sets of carver’s awls of every shape, width and angle. There are contraptions on which big blocks of wood can be turned at almost any angle. There are woodcarver’s hammers: plastic-coated wood cylinders with extended handles — like half of a rolling pin — that are built to limit the strain on the wrist and arm.
There are wooden busts and relief art projects everywhere. Some are 20 years old and still not completed. There are books with sketches, and splinters used to fill cracks, and oily mixtures for staining.
And there’s a well-squeezed tube of Bacitracin waiting nearby.
The tips of his fingers have been scarred often enough that he says he has “won the First Blood Award many times.”
“I take a hot bath every night and work my hands,” he said. “That’s getting old, that’s all it is.”
Zest for the work
He attacks woodcarving with a youngster’s curiosity and glee. He talks about taking classes and how he’d love to one day buy a complete set of Swiss-made carving tools, for about $4,000.
He has a set of tools he bought from Fred Cogelow, a nationally acclaimed woodcarver from Willmar whose gnome-like images are shaped with humor, imagination and an artistry reminiscent of the greatest counterculture cartoon artists of the late 1960s. Years ago, Holst says, he inquired about taking lessons from Cogelow. He said that when Cogelow asked to see Holst’s résumé, Holst decided that maybe he wasn’t ready.
Holst has to be reminded that now he, too, has gained national acclaim of sorts.
As for his résumé?
Holst, who grew up in southeastern Minnesota and Wisconsin, is dyslexic. As a youngster, he couldn’t read and he still has problems spelling words that he hasn’t memorized. Teachers weren’t sure what to make of him. He says he never went to high school.
But he was smart enough to pass every test the military threw at him. After the service, he studied agriculture briefly at the University of Minnesota.
But life continued to throw him curveballs. He says that what VA doctors described as a “nervous disorder” forced him to retire as the owner of a bar/restaurant when he was 55.
The cruelest blow was yet to come. Twenty years ago, his wife, Mary, was killed in an auto accident.
The father of four and grandfather of five now lives with his art. Holst gives away most of his carvings. His wood busts of Santa Claus are family favorites, he says.
He’s still learning about when to use butternut wood or basswood, about the breathing and dust hazards that come from cutting hardwoods with power tools, the art of using oil to “seal” the wood, where in Iowa to find tools, and of woodcarvers’ gatherings in places like Branson, Mo.
He’s not so much interested in contests.
“That ain’t what this is about,” he said with a chuckle.
Besides, there’s too much else to do. He has several relief-art works to complete, a bust of a cowboy carrying a rope across his shoulder, a Santa, and a four-foot-high “trapper” who sits in Holst’s garage. The image is a throwback to the French voyageurs, equipped with ax, backpack and traps.
“I started that eight to 10 years ago,” Holst said. “I believe he is in butternut. It started out as a great, big log. I’d like to get it done, though I don’t know what I’ll do with it, if I ever do finish.”
He’s also working on a project that rivals his blue-ribbon-winning “Summer.”
This one is called “Winter” — a bust of a man who is dressed to encounter the elements. One look at the image and you can’t help but feel you’ve seen this guy in the North Woods or on a frozen lake with line and a pole.
“I’m not working on this with some old contest in mind,” Holst said. “Of course, it wasn’t my idea to enter the other one, either.
“It’s just something to do. Gives me an excuse to keep looking to buy more tools.”