CF carver wins category in national veterans 2020 creative arts competition

Russel Westfahl of Crystal FAlls displays his winning entry in the most recent National Veterans Creative Arts Festival put on by the Veterans Administration in conjunction with the American Legion. Westfahl took first place with this birdhouse, which he spent more than 90 hours creating. (Photo courtesy of John Jamison/Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center)

“Do you have time for a short story?” Sally Westfahl asked.

She then told how she knew her husband, Russel, had fallen for his craft. “We were at a trailer park in Florida and he took a class on carving,” she said. “The next time we went to Florida, he had two boxes of tools for carving.”

As she spoke, he shook his head and smiled; he knew what was coming.

“The time after that, he had six big boxes full of carving stuff!” Sally Westfahl said. “He had the car full of stuff!”

Russel Westfahl recently took first place in the Transfer/Engraving Art Kit category of the 2020 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition for a birdhouse he made.

“I put about 90 hours into that birdhouse,” he said. “But I never thought it would go all the way.”

The 89-year-old Westfahl served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1952 to 1954. He was twice supposed to end up in the middle of the Korean War.

“I was in the dentist’s chair and he was working on me. The sergeant came in and started picking 480 guys from my unit to go over,” he said.

When the sergeant pointed to Westfahl, the dentist told him no. “He said he had too much work to do on me at the time,” Russ said. “I found out later that every one of the men chosen that day ended up as casualties of the war. Whether they were just wounded or killed, I don’t know.” He took a moment, “I still think about that sometimes.”

The second time was early 1953 and an even closer call. “We were training in the jungle to go help the French in Indo-China,” he said. “A few weeks after Eisenhower became president, he came to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, to talk to us. He said, ‘You aren’t going to Indo-China, you all are headed to Korea.'”

“That was a surprise to us because now we would be going where it was cold. In a couple months, we boarded the ship and sailed,” he said.

The armistice that ended hostilities in Korea was signed on July 27, 1953. “While we are in route, they signed the thing and we were called back. I’m thankful every day,” he said, then paused, “but that has nothing to do with carving.”

The Westfahls’ Crystal Falls home is proudly adorned with his carvings. From fish to fowl, he has carved almost everything.

He picked up a delicately crafted white egret. “This is the first carving that I did when I was at that first class.” It sits next to more carvings near the window in his kitchen.

His work is displayed upstairs and downstairs. Most shelves hold at least one of his pieces. His basement is filled with carvings of fish, birds, people and intricate designs.

“Once, I saw this gal carving flowers and in two weeks I learned how to do that,” he said. “Since then, I have carved more than 7,000 of them. Sally makes the arrangements for them.”

Westfahl has dabbled a bit in other creative ventures; he painted for a few years; tried his hand at pyrography, or wood burning; and fly tying and lure making. All of which circles back to the attention to detail he came by in what he did as a career.

“I was a quality control analyst at the Ladish Company. We helped to build fuel tanks for the space shuttle,” he said. “I also taught statistical process control.”

In all, Westfahl has created 670 carvings, not counting the flowers. He has won more than 80 ribbons in carving competitions and has taught numerous classes to anyone who wanted to learn about carving.

“I entered three pieces in the Creative Arts Festival. In my opinion, the one that took first place was the worst of the three,” he said with a laugh.

The VA uses creative arts as one form of rehabilitative treatment to help veterans in the healing and recovery process. Each year, veterans enrolled at VA health care facilities showcase their talents in local creative arts competitions sponsored by their local VA medical center. Submissions that place first locally advance to the national competition.

Locally, 21 veterans entered 40 pieces of art in the competition last year. They had to compete virtually for most of the festival because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The in-person 2020 NVCAF was moved to a virtual festival out of an abundance of caution,” said Jesse Kerley, the local point of contact for the Creative Arts Festival and a recreational therapist at the Iron Mountain VA.

“Veterans who participate are of all ages and abilities. Some have conditions that cause them to be immunocompromised, making travel during a pandemic unsafe,” he said.

Having a virtual festival was safer for people’s health while also being more inclusive for those who would not have been able to attend in-person.

“We aren’t going to be having the in-person day or take walk-in entries this year because of COVID,” Kerley said. “Normally we would hold the submissions for judging. This year we will have a photographer take pictures and send them to be judged.”

The competition will be three days in Iron Mountain and one day in Rhinelander, Wis. Veterans enrolled in VA health care can bring applications and art/submissions for entry during one of these dates, times and locations:

≤ Iron Mountain: 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, June 14; 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 30; and 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, July 14; all to Whole Health on the third floor of the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center.

≤ Rhinelander: 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, July 15, at the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic.

“Local judging will take place sometime in August,” Kerley said.

The national festival will be April 18-24, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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