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How to turn wood into art

Hand-turned wood shaped into beautiful, sometimes delicate, forms will be featured at the Lincoln Cultural Center throughout this month.
The wood sculptures are the work of Lincolnton artist Don Olsen and are featured in “Holiday in the Woods,” which will be on exhibit in the Cochrane and Carolina Mills galleries until Dec. 31.
Olsen has created sculptures of all kinds – mobiles that look like they’re swimming, hearty logs gracefully shaped, snakes, horns and one-of-a-kind bowls.
For him, there’s no medium like wood. Ever since taking a woodworking class in junior high, he was a goner.
“I’ve always loved wood,” he said. “I just love the naturalness, the color, the feel.”
Although he spent his working days as a logic-filled engineer, he’s been aware of his creative streak.
“I didn’t really do anything with it, though,” Olsen said. “It was just laying there in the background.”
His first woodworking class took place in 1952. He became more immersed in the medium in the 1970s when he formed a wood-turning club.
Following his 1993 retirement and subsequent move to North Carolina after a lifetime as a Northerner, Olsen began to get serious about his art.
He’s shaped all kinds of forms out of wood. Prior to retirement, he made furniture and other functional items. Soon he began to explore the sculptural options wood-turning afforded him.
“Any shape you can create in pottery, you can create in wood,” he said.
He won first place honors in 1996 at the Rowan Mayfest Spring Arts Festival. It was the first time he ever placed at the top.
His second first place award came recently, in the 2005 Lincoln County-wide Art Contest.
In between, there have been many other exhibitions and contests, many second and third places and honorable mentions. His work is on display in private collections and has been exhibited in national competitions.
While all this is nice, Olsen’s true passion is the work itself – the type of wood, the shape, the color, the individual markings that make it unique.
“If pieces are too plain, I’m not really interested,” he said.
Instead, he likes to find special pieces of wood to work with. For several sculptures in his most recent exhibit, the wood came from the lot beside his house.
Loggers were taking down trees and he found one piece of wood that was devastatingly beautiful to him due to the perfect markings left from tiny beetles. He had to search out the tree and when he found it, he bought the whole thing.
Other trees close to his heart include one from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church’s cemetery. From this tree he fashioned a cross that is now in the church’s sanctuary.
The wall outside the Lincoln Cultural Center’s Gift Shop also features Olsen’s work – a cross section of a tree found in downtown Lincolnton.
While the wood itself is beautiful, it’s what Olsen does with it that makes it art.
Most recently he has become interested in making mobiles, one of which garnered him the Lincoln County first place win.
“I’m trying to build more movement into the pieces as an added dimension,” he said.
He does all his work in a small shop/studio behind his house. When he becomes too involved, his wife of 11 years has to seek him out.
“If I get in the zone working on a piece, then the call from the house comes in,” he said.
The couple met through church after Olsen had moved to North Carolina.
“She’s tried to ‘Southernize’ me,” he said. “It’s the toughest thing she’s ever done. What do you expect from a boy from New York?”
Want to go?
Olsen’s work, “Southernized” only by the type of wood used, will be on display 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Lincoln Cultural Center, 403 East Main St. “Holiday in the Woods” will be on display through Dec. 31.
The exhibit also includes the work of Ginny Kozelvari, who will be featured in an upcoming edition of the Lincoln Times-News.

by Sarah Grano

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