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A Great American Woodworker - Fred Cogelow


A Great American Woodworker -
Fred Cogelow

One-of-a-kind carver, one-of-a-kind carvings.

By Spike Carlsen

An impromptu encounter with Fred Cogelow’s “Norwegian Wheelchair” gave me a true sense of Fred as both an artist and a person. The chair itself is a thing of rare beauty, adorned with mythical Scandinavian figures, interwoven acanthus forms and intricate faces. It incorporates a swivel mechanism, reclaimed cast iron wheels and a chunky seat that caresses you. Obviously, Fred is an imaginative artist with enormous talent.

He’s also infatuated with trees and wood. The wood for the wheelchair came from an ancient butternut tree near Fred’s hometown of Willmar Minnesota. He prefers not cutting down live trees for his sculptures, so he’d kept his eye on this tree for years. When it died, Fred got permission to harvest the wood. But when he went after the old tree with a chainsaw, he discovered that most of it was hollow. Not wanting to waste a beautiful resource, Fred utilized the curved hollow shell as the backrest of the chair and other parts for the chassis.

I hesitated when Fred asked if he could give me a ride in his fantastic chariot. But I realized something as I was gliding across his living room floor: Fred loves to have a good time in whatever he does.


Carving out a living

When asked what he’d do for a living if he weren’t a wood sculptor, Fred stares blankly. The thought hasn’t occurred to him—at least not in the last 30 years. Though deemed “hopeless” by a third grade teacher that had watched him break a leg off the Ivory soap scotty dog he was carving with a butter knife, Fred persisted. He first tried carving wood when he was 17, working six hours with dull carpenters’ chisels and a propane torch on a fir house-moving beam that his father (who died when Fred was six) had left behind.

Fred’s artistic endeavors were waylaid for several years while he earned a degree in political science from the University of Chicago. He resumed woodcarving while working at an adolescent treatment facility, where he was periodically assigned to night-watch shifts. “The only requirements were to make rounds every hour and stay awake the rest of the time,” Fred explains. “Carving kept me awake.” His first creation was a dollar bill-size carving of Albert, the Pogo comic strip character. He tried his hand at furniture restoration and construction for a while, but tired of it. Though his formal art training consisted of only 7th and 8th grade art classes, he turned to woodcarving full time at the age of 29.

Fred likes to concentrate on one sculpture at a time and completes four or five large pieces and 15 to 20 smaller pieces in a year. His sculptures generally sell for $400 to $20,000; large and complex projects bring more. He prefers working on his own designs versus commissions. “I try to make everything a little experimental,” he explains. “And commissions usually make you go backwards instead of forwards. Plus you never know if the sculpture in your head matches the sculpture in the client’s head.”


Versatile and driven

Fred, now 60 years young, is versatile in many respects. The subjects he carves range from cowboy caricatures to superbly realistic religious figures. He’s carved local farmers and hung-over gargoyles. Some works, like the sculpture honoring hometown astronaut Pinky Nelson (Photo, above), are nearly life-size. Others are as small as a fist—“Applebee’s sliders,” Fred calls them.

Fred works in numerous carving styles, but he’s particularly interested in what he calls “mezzo-relief” carving. “In between low-relief and high-relief carving is a realm where there are few absolute rights and a good many wrongs,” he says. “When working in this style, a carver weighs numerous options of how best to create the illusion of greater depth. These options include warped planes, distorted forms, enhanced or compressed elements, judicious undercutting and the use and re-use of the actual (available) depth. Of course, these options are employed in conjunction with conventional perspective techniques of converging lines, foreshortening and overlapping. Fred’s sculpture titled “Betty’s Spies”—the 2010 International Woodcarver’s Congress “Best in Show” award winner—offers a prime example of this carving style. Although this sculpture is only 3-3/4" deep, the trees visible through the window appear to be far away—across the street from the gentleman in the foreground.

Fred’s figures in the round are equally exemplary. In his book, Sculptor in Wood, Fred explains. “The greatest problem in carving these figures—especially from a limb or from a log—is to create a product which comes across as something more than a decorated fencepost.” There’s no mistaking Fred’s work for a fencepost. Whether it’s a bemused mechanic grasping a spark plug or an astronaut riding a horse, his sculptures brim with personality. In Fred’s sculpture of a wizened gentleman seated on a pair of boxes, the figure appears to be paused in the midst of a heart-rending story. His sculpture, “Peter Accused” has such realism and emotion that one hesitates to turn away from it. “Rest Easy Tonight” is playfully political.

Fred’s fellow woodcarvers agree that he is one of the best. Among other honors, Fred has won “Best of Show” nearly a dozen times at the annual International Woodcarver Congress competition.

Yet the world of carving is not without its slivers. A few years back Fred broke his arm while hollowing out the back of a statue. The bit stuck, but the drill—and Fred’s wrist—kept turning. And in his office sit two gorgeous carvings in need of repair. One, a fabulous mezzo relief, fell victim to a tainted finish. The other, a figure in the round, is missing two fingers and a hat brim, due to rough handling by a shipper.


For the love of wood and tools

Fred uses butternut for 80% of his carvings, with basswood coming in a distant second and walnut an even more distant third. He loves butternut because of its straight grain, moderate hardness and coloration. “It’s easier to read the grain in butternut than in basswood, because it has more color,” he explains.

“My customers like it too. If I carve something out of another wood, it invariably sells for less.”

“I think I have enough wood for several lifetimes,” laughs Fred, who knows the exact provenience of the wood used in most of his sculptures. “But that doesn’t stop me from hoarding more.” Most of Fred’s wood is stored in his late mother-in-law’s barn. This stash is primarily the result of a friendship with a DNR forester, who occasionally informed Fred of fallen trees in need of removal. The stack of apricot wood in Fred’s storeroom, though, came from a tree in his own back yard.

Fred is equally enamored with tools. His workspace consists of a padded stool perched in front of a massive carving easel created from the cast iron base of an old mortician’s table. “A tool-collector friend sold it to me for $25,” Fred recalls. “He called me up out of the blue one day and announced that he had something I needed. You can crank it up or down, it tilts and it’s darn solid—the best carving table I’ve ever seen. It has saved my back and hence, my career.” Fred’s work station is surrounded by tool cabinets containing hundreds of gouges, skews and chisels, all within easy reach. Sandpaper is nowhere to be found. “I can’t remember using it on more than three or four pieces in the past 30 years.”

Fred’s shop, perched on the second floor of a reconstituted chicken shed next to his home, is filled with objects that Fred uses as both inspiration and models. He has antlers, skulls and his “Norwegian track-lighting system,” an old hay mow trolley that hangs from a wooden track and carries a single candle. “My contribution to cutting-edge technology of which I am most proud,” Fred claims. He has weathervane roosters, stained glass windows, Mickey Mouse Club badges, bent bugles, sections of curved choir loft railing, horse stirrups, old tools and things that defy description. Amidst all of this hangs a sign with a quote from Thomas Edison that reads “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Click any image to view a larger version.

(Honoring astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson
96" H x 96" W x 26" D

Norsk Rullestol
(Norwegian Wheelchair)
Butternut, black walnut, bur oak
34" H x 28" W x 40" D

Aint Indolence
(... If You’re Minding Other’s Business)
30" H x 14-1/4" W x 17-3/4" D

Rest Easy Tonight
(A Salute to the Department of Homeland Security)
Butternut; walnut base
19" H x 9" W x 14" D

Peter Accused
(a.k.a. Peter Meets His Principle ...Fred Ditto ...)
44" H x 26" W x 28" D

The Simple Pleasures of Edifying the College-Educated
(It’s Your Spark Plug, Dummy!)
18-1/2" H x 14" W x 6" D

Betty’s Spies
(Small Town Busybodies Keeping Busy)
21" H x 24-1/4" W x 3-3/4" D

Deck of 51
15-1/2" H x 17-1/4" W x 5-5/8" D

Advice for rookies

Fred suggests whittling as a way to learn about tools, and splitting firewood as a way to learn about wood’s grain. As for subject matter, he says, “Do something you’re familiar with. If you like messing around with cars, do cars. If you like bird watching, do birds.”

He’s hesitant to recommend any particular set of tools. His advice for those interested in testing the waters is to find a carving or casting in a style they’d like to attempt and bring it to a place that sells carving tools, so that they can ask what tools they’ll need and experiment with different types.

“Be mindful that any motion that cuts without use of a prying effort is legitimate, be it straight on, rotational or gliding,” Fred explains. “Keep your tools sharp and remember that a cool tool is a happy tool. And think of your tools as an extension of your hands, in the same way figure skaters think of skates as an extension of their feet.” If that’s true, Fred Cogelow has won Olympic gold.


Eye of a master

Fred describes carving as both an artistic and logical endeavor, but he’s been carving for so long and works so intuitively that he finds it difficult to put the creative process into words. “Part of it is learning how to see,” he explains. But since there are tools, materials, specific end results and a coherent way of getting there, “Part of it is engineering the piece, too.”

He often works from photographs and is not beyond asking friends to dress in bed sheets to serve as models when he’s carving robed religious figures. Interviews sometimes help Fred understand the personalities of his subjects that photos can’t convey. With some commissions, he’ll create life-size sketches as a guide, but he rarely uses calipers to transfer measurements, since some elements grow and others shrink when they’re carved, especially in mezzo-relief. For the commissioned project shown here, Fred started with two photos—an inspirational shot showing the father and his daughter playing solitaire and a second shot portraying a good likeness of the father. As Fred generated a full-size drawing from which to work, he had a friend model, so he could get the correct folds in the shirt.

Because carving is a subtractive process, where material is taken away rather than added, Fred is constantly wary of making commitments that can’t be modified. “The temptation to round things off or undercut them prematurely is always present. Doing so makes them look correct in the short run, but it dooms them to be mediocre or outright wrong in the end.”

And though parts of the process can be learned, Fred clearly has the eye of a master. Referring to a recent sculpture, Fred explains, “When I’m out there with a chainsaw, I can already see the cowboy in the tree.”

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October/November 2010, issue #150.