Greg Just never knows who will be on the receiving end of the ornate wooden bowls he turns on his wood lathe. What the 60-year-old Blaine resident does know is that his craftsmanship could bring a bit of joy to a child facing a serious illness and undergoing myriad treatments. So, in addition to the wooden peppermills and coffee mugs he makes to sell, Just has produced about 30 bowls to donate to children participating in the Beads of Courage program.
“I’ve never been through anything like these kids go through,” Just said. “Making the bowls was something I could offer.”
Just, like dozens of other wood-turners across Minnesota, brings his bowls — referred to as “vessels” — to local Woodturners Association meetings. From there, the works of art are sent to children’s hospitals around the country, where they are presented to children participating in Beads of Courage, a Tucson, Ariz.-based arts-in-medicine program for children coping with any number of health challenges, including cancer and blood disorders, heart conditions, burn injuries and chronic illness.
Through the program, a child receives a colored bead for each treatment milestone — an overnight stay in the hospital, a blood draw, a round of chemotherapy. By the end of their treatments, children often have hundreds of beads they can use to remember and recount their treatment journey.
The program, now in 250 hospitals around the world, enlists glass artists to make and donate unique beads for the children. In 2014, the request was extended to the St. Paul-based American Association of Woodturners:
Could members make special lidded bowls for the children to store their beads?
“The bowls add a whole new art form that strengthens our mission,” said Jean Baruch, founder of Beads of Courage. “It’s an amazing thing for families to be afforded a gift of original art.”
The vessels hold a few metaphors as well. Woodturners often seek wood from a tree that has been stressed. Some of the most beautiful grain patterns might come from a tree fighting an infection.
“It’s like the artists turn the tree inside out to show the beauty from within,” Baruch said. “That’s a beautiful and symbolic thing.”
Minnesota has five American Association of Woodturners chapters. Each has members who produce vessels for Beads of Courage. Over the last four years, members of the Minnesota Woodturners Association, based in the Twin Cities, have donated 460 bowls. (Beads of Courage is hosting a free Minneapolis event Sept. 22. Go to tinyurl.com/y9so792s).
Just, a member of the Twin Cities chapter, said each bowl takes a few hours to make. He uses a segmented turning technique, which involves working with a piece made of glued-together parts. Just often uses maple, walnut and cherry woods from local sawmills and even has experimented with inlaying colored pencils.
“Thinking about the kids really inspires me to create more,” Just said. “I want them all to be unique gifts.”
Phil McDonald, executive director of the American Association of Woodturners, said the bowls not only showcase the craftsmanship of wood-turners across the country but also offer a sense of comfort for families.
He would know. McDonald’s 3-year-old granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia last fall. Within a week, she was holding a handmade wooden bowl from a Minnesota wood-turner.
After three months, the string of beads inside stretched three feet long. She’s doing well, but more difficult treatments are ahead.
“The bowl offered our family a tangible object that transcends the uncertainty and difficulties of the treatment process,” McDonald said. “It was an extremely special thing.”