Trees kept alive through artist’s craft

By Josette Keelor

In a red barn Charlie Galambos transformed into a workshop, a blizzard of wood shavings gathered around him as he turned Bradford pear wood on a lathe.

The barn’s double doors were thrown open on the recent July afternoon despite the rain pouring down onto the 68 acres backing up to George Washington National Forest that he and his wife own in Maurertown. Inside, the musty smell of wood hung in the air, and wood from all around the valley lay drying.

Maple is his favorite to work with, but recently he’s been turning Bradford pear, which came from trees that lined the streets of Strasburg before the downtown enhancement committee removed them.

Galambos frequently uses wood from trees that will be cut down anyway, so he didn’t hesitate at claiming a good 10 pieces of Strasburg wood for its historical aspect.

The same sort of thing happened three years ago when he acquired wood from the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree felled in the Grottos of Augusta County, or four years ago when he purchased wood from two trees in front of the Woodstock courthouse.

From the Woodstock trees, he made bowls — one now on display in the Woodstock Museum — and gavels for area judges and lawyers. It just seemed appropriate, considering the trees’ proximity to the courthouse.

He also makes pepper grinders and pens and even Christmas ornaments.

“You make something that means something to people,” he said. Because often it’s more about where the wood came from than what form it takes now. “Somebody says, ‘ooh, I got a piece of the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree.'”

“That’s the way this game works,” he said.

Guided by sentimentality when pear trees that outlived their lifespan were removed from Strasburg, Marcy McCann who owns Shenandoah Art Works on Main Street, thought of Galambos and other area artists.

“What I acquired was the wood outside my building,” McCann said.

“I thought people would really want pieces of this wood for sentimental reasons, and it’s stunningly beautiful,” she said. Already several artists have brought work to her shop. “I didn’t know that they could work with it that quickly,” McCann said. “These guys are creating beauty out of what would have just been tossed on the heap.”

Pete Johnson of Mt. Clifton already has wooden bowls, vases and water goblets for sale at Shenandoah Art Works, but Wolfgang Neudorfer of Mt. Olive said he’s waiting for the wood to dry before carving and expects to start later in the fall.

“It’s a beautiful orange right now,” said Neudorfer, 69, a retired attorney who has been turning wood for about 30 years. “I hope it stays that way.”

If the pear wood reacts like Osage orange does to the drying process, it could turn brown, he said, but so far it’s retained its color.

Johnson, 73, just started turning wood only three years ago and has his home-based studio on the Virginia Artisan Trail. All three men are members of the Wood Turners of the Virginias, which meets in Mt. Jackson on the first Saturday of each month.

Galambos, a native of Hungary who moved to the U.S. when he was 15, started turning wood after retiring 20 years ago.

“Once in awhile I sketch out what I’m after, but normally not,” he said. “This one,” — he indicated a finished pear wood bowl — “I made a mistake and it was too thin.” So he gave it a base of black walnut.

After 20 years of turning wood, he has a pretty good idea of what will work.

“Poplar is good, old cherries, apple, pretty much all the fruit works. Pears, oak,” he said. Soft woods, like cedar, aren’t good for carving out bowls, he said.

Galambos has made three bowls and a pen from his Strasburg pear wood so far, setting aside the products after carving them so they can finish drying.

A clear semi-gloss wood finish he uses darkens the wood only a little, retaining the natural wood color.

“After the paint dries, they’re safe for food,” he said.

He said roughing out the bowls and then letting them dry expedites the process.

“If you put it aside, it’ll be years before it’s dry.”

Shenandoah Art Works is located at 234 West King St., Strasburg. For more information about the artists or their work, call 540-664-8028.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com