Artists, Wayne Dennler, left, and Dave Elayer spend Fair Week working on their craft. Photo by Glenda Svendsen

Local carvers master their craft while teaching others

Dave Elayer, Wayne Dennler and Wayne Minnick have all acquired skills in woodworking, achieving status as true artists in a relatively short period of time.

The longest leg of the journey belongs to Dave Elayer who began whittling to pass time in motel rooms while traveling for work more than 20 years ago.

Artist Wayne Minnick poses with a fantasy castle conjured from pure imagination plus countless hours of carving. Photo by Sandy Minnick

However, if you take into account inherited talent the point of origin goes back much further. Elayer is the great-nephew (many times over) of Gustav Haug — a famous German artist who apprenticed under French sculptor, Lienard in the 1800s before migrating to the United States and settling in Wisconsin. Many of his works can be found there today including a zinc sculpture on display at Jackson Park in Milwakee.

Those wood working genes were milling around in the family for some time before emerging in the intricate details of Elayer’s work. He chisels treasures worthy of a place of prestige in any art collection.

His chosen medium is always wood, but the form the project takes might be a bust, a relief, or a spoon. His attention to detail and the skillful execution which brings the piece to life is evident in every carving. His caricature carvings are especially impressive and each one brings to life the magnitude of Elayers talent.

While Elayer has been honing his skill for decades, Wayne Minnick has been carving for less than 10 years. His whimsical castles and hillside hobbit dwellings are absolutely magical — twisting towers feature drawbridges and doors to undiscovered dimensions in his fantastical creations.

In fact, he has been known to tell intrigued children that “tiny little people” live inside and its easy to imagine little folk of all sorts climbing endless staircases before snoozing in moss covered cots.

Most surprising is this: Minnick didn’t start carving until he was nearly 70.

It was Elayer who invited Minnick to try his hand at the craft. His unearthed talent led to an incident Elayer shared:

“Minnick and I were working at our table during fair week when a woman saw a castle he was finishing up and asked, ‘How much?’ Well, he had only just finished the piece and wasn’t keen on letting it go, so he politely informed her it wasn’t for sale. Then she pulled out her check book and said, ‘You don’t understand, I’m buying that from you.’ Well, he didn’t appreciate the attitude and downright refused to sell it, so the lady stalked off steaming.”

Minnick, now a prolific creator of quite a collection of cottonwood cottages and castles, is pursuing another endeavor: walking sticks carved from diamond willow imported from Alaska.

Initially, it was just Elayer and Minnick, — a couple of carvers honing their craft during fair week. Then, five years ago, Wayne Dennler was camping at Meryl Campground when he spotted Elayer at a nearby picnic table.

Dennler recalls, “ I saw he was carving so I asked if he’d mind if I sat and watched him work. I checked out the tools and probably wore him out with questions. Since I used to be a carpenter, I thought it was a hobby I might have a knack for.”

Shortly after, Elayer invited him to the carving table at Jensen Hall.

“I showed up and there was a chair and a piece of bark for me to start with. Dave and Wayne shared their tools, lending a hand when I needed help. I’d get to a spot where I didn’t know what tool or technique to use to achieve a certain effect and one of the guys would be like, ‘Here, try this.’ So, I learned as I went along. The first piece I ever carved was done sitting at a table in Jensen Hall during fair week.”

And, then there were three.

Chalets, cabins, cottages and castles took form and Dennler learned to look to the wood for guidance.

“Sometimes, I have a plan but the wood wants to be worked another way and in the end the results end up being better than my original idea.” Said Dennler.

Dennler’s cottonwood bark carvings showcase his ability to work with shape and texture to bring out the story the wood wants to tell. His talent is evident in each finished piece.

As Dennler’s skill increased, he too began branching out into other projects.

“I’ve also done some wood-burning. One winter I salvaged my son’s Christmas tree and used   the pine slices to make several lodge-style ornaments.”

The passing down of trade secrets continues: At the fair this year, two youth spent time at the carving table watching intently and Dennler was able to demonstrate technique to a new generation of carvers.

In fact, third-grader Jeremy Gowan spent two days at the fair observing the process. Dennler noticed the boys suggestions for shaping the piece he was working on were insightful.

“He had a good eye and was clearly fascinated. He even returned the next day with a piece of bark to rough out,” Dennler added.

The carving and camaraderie are something all three men look forward to during fair week. Dennler offers, “ We visit when we have something to say, and then just enjoy each other’s company and the carving in companionable silence.”

Each artist reports they work on their craft during the winter, but they all expressed hopes of finding a venue where other interested carvers can join them to work on their projects year-round.