They’re a little different, and they know it. What they do when they get together isn’t for everyone.
It’s earthy. It’s sensual. Some pain may be inflicted.
They don’t always talk about it with outsiders.
“When you meet someone, you have to suss them out first and see how open-minded they are,” said Nicky Gibson, a 39-year-old who came all the way from London to the western Minnesota prairie to sate her passion.
One weekend a year, the remote hamlet of Milan, Minn. — population 369 — is the center of the spooniverse.
The 11th annual Spoon Gathering, hosted earlier this month by the Milan Village Arts School, attracted more than 150 carvers from nearly 20 states and several foreign countries.
These people are the rock stars of this fast-growing pastime. Their soundtrack is the chunk of a finely honed ax biting crisply into a log, the rasp of a file on steel. At once energetic and ruminative, analytical and philosophical, they transform raw wood into the humblest of human tools, a creation as ancient and elemental as a good bowl of bear meat stew.
“Everyone has these office jobs, and they have a yearning to connect to the woods,” said Alex Yerks, who chucked a job in the New York fashion industry to live in a yurt in Woodstock — yes, that Woodstock. “We’re all connected by the trees and the wood.
“Wood is good.”
Charlie “Little Bird” Thompson lives in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. He’s been interested in woodworking since he was a kid. For him, carving a spoon is a simple joy that’s renewed every time he picks it up.
“It’s the pleasure of using a beautiful everyday object,” he said. “That’s one of the sweet spots of spoons.”
‘A little tool-crazy’
The world is catching on to the joy of spoons. A Facebook group devoted to spoons and green woodcarving has grown from 2,000 members to more than 17,000 in just two years. There are about 20 organized woodcarving groups in the Twin Cities alone, said Dennis “the Menace” Diers of White Bear Lake, who carved his first spoon 52 years ago.
“I met a wonderful Swedish woman, and I learned that in Sweden, a man presents a spoon to a woman he’s interested in,” Diers said. “So I carved her a spoon out of balsa wood. It was horrible, but she accepted it.” Diers and his wife, Ann — along with the spoon he made for her — will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
But he has a warning to anyone who’s offered a spoon by a lover.
“There’s an old Scandinavian proverb: ‘Beware of a man with many spoons,’ ” Diers said. “That means he’s been turned down too many times.”
If that’s the case, there are a lot of bachelors at the Spoon Gathering, because spoons are everywhere: tiny spoons, giant spoons, rough spoons and carefully decorated spoons. Each one, no matter how crude, is treasured by its creator.
The Arts School was founded in 1988 to promote traditional folk arts and boost the economy of the prairie region, which was suffering the loss of family farms. The Spoon Gathering is just one of many programs the school offers, but it’s becoming one of the most anticipated each year.
Wood chips, fragrant and freshly cut, litter the ground around the old red schoolhouse that’s the Arts School’s home. A dizzying array of axes, hatchets, knives and files clutters the tables and stumps where the carvers work.
“They can be a little tool-crazy,” admitted Ron Porep, director of the Arts School.
There are bearded Viking axes. Swan-neck gouges and hook knives. Adzes and sloyds. Just about everyone packs a Mora Frost 106, the basic knife that’s the No. 2 pencil of the hobby.
‘Releasing the spoon’
With all these tools, lovingly honed — a carver might spend eight hours getting just the right edge and bevel on an ax — some injuries are inevitable.
“You get cut a lot in the beginning, but you learn not to,” said Lee Ann Behling, a retired dental hygienist from Woodbury who took up spoon carving last fall and sports a hot pink bandage on one thumb. Now she carries a repair kit with bandages — and Super Glue to close the big cuts.
For Behling, making spoons is about sensuality, reconnecting with the Earth.
“You get connected to it in a very personal, intimate way,” she said.
Others echoed her thoughts. For these carvers, the work is a process of discovery, of feeling the wood and steel, bringing to life what they see in their mind’s eye.
“It’s about releasing the spoon from the wood,” said Gibson, the Londoner. “You’re making wood chips. The spoon is a byproduct. It’s very meditative and therapeutic.”
The carvers clearly are delighted to be with others who share their passion. They chat endlessly about tools and technique and grain, showing each other new methods and demonstrating new skills. Unlike the commercial art world, where many artists are protective of their techniques, the ethos here is about sharing.
“Some of these people are pretty famous, but they want to pass on their skills,” Porep said.
“It’s a netherworld,” Gibson said. “You go through the wardrobe and come out in a different place where everyone is like you.”
Later that night, after the homemade pizzas come out of the wood-fired oven, there will be singing and music and dancing. Many carvers are also musicians, and they’ve brought their instruments to the gathering: fiddles, guitars, jaw harps, a washtub bass.
And, yes, spoons.