Nearly forty years ago, when a neighbor teased Gene Heezen about his upcoming trip to the Ozarks, (“Are going down there to spit and whittle?”) Heezen thought, well, why not? He picked up a knife and discovered a new creative outlet.
Since his first project—an exhausted hillbilly figure atop a worn out mule—his woodcarving projects have evolved and now range in style from folksy to elegant to mathematically precise. It is impossible to say how many people, animals, horse-drawn carriages and historical buildings Heezen has carved over time because he has given most of them away. “I make everything to give away,” Heezen says. “I don’t have room for it. Last year, I sent out dozens of things to churches, museums, friends and family.” Sometimes, especially around Christmas, he will work up a piece for a particular person, “and while doing so,” he says, “that person is easy on my mind.” This year, his grandson picked out a pattern for a Santa figure. “It’s a complicated piece, with a sleigh,” says Heezen, who estimates he has been carving Santa sculptures for thirty years.
Heezen starts with a pattern from one of the many books he has collected, transfers the pattern to a block of basswood, and rough cuts the shape using a band saw. Other than that, his work is by hand. “I began with Exacto blades, but that was no good,” he says. “Not sharp enough. Since then, I have been using the same type of blade from the Warren Cutlery Corporation, out of Rhinebeck, NY. Every so often I call them and tell them to send me more blades. And they do.”
After Heezen finishes carving the figure, he sands it by hand and paints it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is done. “I am going to do these over,” he says, pointing out two figures nearly through the painting stage. “They don’t look very happy. They need rosy cheeks and stuff.” Alongside the variety of Santa figures on Heezen’s workbench are two Nativity scenes, one in painted basswood, and one in natural butternut. “This Nativity scene uses less detail,” Heezen says, “because the [butternut] wood is beautifully grained. Some patterns have the modern art look. I don’t care for that either, but somewhere in the middle is okay.”
Considering the volume of Heezen’s woodcarving output, one might think it is his all-encompassing passion. One would be wrong. Heezen has a number of avid interests, including his family, creative writing, Civil War history, genealogy and cooking prize-winning chili. Nor is he through trying new things in the workshop. “I might do a chess set,” he says.
Heezen shares some of his observations about the art of woodcarving. “I like to work first thing in the morning;” he says. “It’s a lot easier to get into the emergency room if something goes wrong.” He bursts out laughing, as he often does, but in truth he has sustained his share of stitches. Still, the dangers of his hobby do not diminish the satisfaction he receives from exploring the world within the wood. “The secret is that when you do some carving, you should have several projects going at the same time because it gets like a jigsaw puzzle where you can’t find pieces; it doesn’t come. So you go to a dog, then back to a Santa, then onto something else. Then it works.”
He likes to revisit patterns and themes he has tried years before to see how he is progressing in his craft. In fact, some might note his recent Santa figures bear a resemblance to some of his first Ozark figures. “Like a good piece of writing,” he says. “The end should come back to the beginning.”
Several works by Heezen are on display at the Plymouth Historical Society Museum (3605 Fernbrook Lane, Plymouth). He has built numerous replicas of area historic buildings from measurements taken of the actual buildings, or from photographs if the building had already been demolished, restoring them in miniature to their former glory.