Anoka woodcarver, 83, finds his niche with prize-winning sculpture

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2013 - 4:42 PM

In his first big woodcarving contest, Anoka’s Kent Holst more than made the cut — much to his surprise.

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Kent Holst began woodcarving as a hobby 30 years ago, after he retired from owning a sports bar. Now 83, he just won a regional contest at the Minneapolis VA hospital.

Photo: Richard Sennott , Star Tribune

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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.

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