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Kelat man turns blocks of wood into works of art

By Josh Shepherd, News writer

Watching Donald Hill shape  and shave unformed blocks of wood on the lathe into something beautiful in his Silver Road workshop, it’s easy to understand the famous quote from the Italian sculptor Michaelangelo. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

It is equally true in Hill’s approach to woodcraft, though Hill is blessed with the humility to dismiss the Michaelangelo quote as pretentious.

“I just like working in wood,” he said. 

He would rather point out the unique qualities of the grain that he sees in the raw wood itself. In a piece of maple that looks no more interesting than a random block of firewood, Hill notes the erratic black line of bacterial growth that developed because water got trapped inside the wood. 

Bacteria that would be the source of deadly rot in a tree becomes, in Hill’s hands, an eye-catching feature that he will emphasize in the piece he is carving.

Hill also loves combining wood species. He picks up a tea light holder that he made recently, points to the contrast of the oak grain against smaller pieces of Brazilian walnut or cherry worked into the fine grooves in the oak that he created just for them.

At a recent trip to a wood working shop in Lexington, Hill said he was inspired by the work of another artist. He began crafting beautiful wood bracelets out of pure Red Heart, several of which he has given to his wife, Stella, as a gift.

Throughout Hill’s home are numerous examples of his endless creativity. He does not contain himself to any one type of project. He has made plates, rolling pins and all manner of children’s toys. 

Some of his most prized works are the elaborate bowls in which he has preserved the fragile features of the bark, cambium and the delicate lace formed from the knots, natural imperfections of the hardwood. 

All these things Hill loves to discover when he is working on a particular piece. These singular imperfections determine if he wants to create a work out of one piece or fashion a larger work from combining several wood species together.

But this talent for woodworking is not something he spent a lifetime developing.

Even though his father, Andrew Hill, was a carpenter who made furniture and built houses for a living, Donald helped him but he didn’t take on the work as a professional.

“I learned how to build things, but I didn’t learn to make the kinds of things I do now through him,” Hill said.

Hill’s professional life followed a familiar track. After graduating from high school, Hill said that he got his personal invitation to join the military and he served his time from 1953-55. When he returned home, he spent 38 years as an employee of the Webber’s Sausage Company.

His interest in art came when he and his three boys, Shannon, Jonathan and Dwayne, started experimenting with painting. They would go into the back room and work with the paints.

But this endeavor ended  up being too messy and there was an unwelcome odor of paint thinner polluting the house, he said.

Wood burning, on the other hand, turned out to be the perfect outlet for his artistic side, he said.

“I don’t have to keep a big store of paints. I just plug in the wood  burner and in three minutes, I’m working,” Hill said.

In addition to his woodcrafts projects, there are also several excellent examples of his wood burning work on display in his home.

He admits to having an obsession with images of covered bridges. He puts them on everything. At the kitchen table, Hill pulls out a collection of toothpicks he bought from Cracker Barrel restaurant.

The toothpicks are the perfect size for him to work in tiny detail and he has a collection that contains images of covered bridges. Some are created from his memories, such as the old River Road covered bridge, the John Hunt Morgan Bridge or the Colville Bridge in Bourbon County.

He has also lifted popsicle sticks from the banality of their existence by using them as a natural canvass for one of his fictional covered bridge images.

Before he gets through talking about one project or another, his wife urges him to talk about another of her favorite pieces. There are many. 

In a collection of photographs, he shows the rocking chair that he fashioned to sit like a motorcycle for one of his grandchildren. Remaining true to the woodmaker’s craft, he used large wooden pegs to join the pieces together.

He calls the back room of his house the Outback Gallery “because it’s located out back of the house.” His sense of humor is also manifested in his works. 

Among the many impressive pieces on display in the outback gallery is a comfortable looking Adirondack-style chair and stool in what appears to be red cedar. Affixed to the underside of the chair are four vibrating discs he salvaged from an old motel bed, making for one very unique piece of hand-crafted massage therapy furniture.

In terms of his own work as a builder, about 20 years ago, he met a young evangelist from West Virginia by the name of John Marshall. Marshall travelled extensively across the country carrying his message forward. He had a wife and 10 children with him.

Having hosted Marshall’s family during a revival week in Harrison County, the men struck a lasting friendship.

Marshall had bought a used Greyhound bus that had over 70,000 miles on it. Employing his own skills as a builder, Hill built most of the doors and cabinets for Marshall’s retrofitted Greyhound.

“I never charged him a thing for the work. I was glad to do it. John put over a million miles on that bus before moving on to something else,” Hill said.

Hill is currently enjoying his second time as the artist of the month at The Vault downtown. Many of his works and the works of many other talented local artists are featured at The Vault and in the Art Gallery in the Licking Valley Campus extension in Harrison Square.

In fact, the works of art on display are on sale for the holidays. Its worth a trip down to see what excellent holiday gifts.

In the meantime, Hill will be working through his collection of scrap wood, finding something beautiful within a simple old piece of wood.