Clinton man masters his craft
CLINTON — Gerry Lesch has traveled to all seven continents and carved items out of native wood while visiting six of them.
The exception was his 2009 trip to Antarctica, which doesn't allow defacing of anything. So, he made do with what he could find, notching an owl out of a bar of soap in three minutes while departing on an old icebreaking ship. Lesch gave it to a Russian couple who had just gotten engaged.
Next summer he plans to visit Iceland and Greenland. But currently his attention is concentrated on Rock County, because he will be the featured carver — for a second time — at the 12th annual Rock River Valley Carvers show, which is scheduled Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Rock County Fairgrounds.
“It's cool,” to be recognized he said, “but I enjoy it the most because I get to talk to all of those people. It's a lot of fun.”
His eventual hobby didn't necessarily start out that way. He began carving from 1969 through 1971, creating three duck decoys out of pine boards — all three went belly-up, thus not producing the hunting results he hoped for.
It also would have turned most folks into former wood carvers.
That wasn't the case for Lesch, although a busy career and family life meant more than a 30-year hiatus from an activity that would become part of his DNA.
Lesch, 75, didn't take up the craft again until 2002. That's when he enrolled in Jim Trumpy's class for beginners.
Trumpy showed him the proper tools, supplies and equipment to use, and Lesch has taken other classes. But for the most part he's a self-taught artist who has created world-class carvings.
He has numbered and documented all 116 of his carvings. However, many of his creations feature multiple pieces, including an eclectic farmers market booth of an amazing 3,659 pieces, most of them made from toothpicks, in which garden caricatures are selling peppers and other produce. The project stretched over two and a half years.
“I'm carving all of the time … pretty much all winter and spring,” Lesch said.
He also makes many of his own tools, especially small wood-burning wires and chisels (made with sewing and acupuncture needles) for his intensely delicate work.
“My philosophy always was that quality was much more important than quantity, whether it was in welding, teaching or now with my carving,” Lesch said. “I always say, 'When you think you're done, you're really not. Only then do you know what it's potential is, and so you keep going.”
That trait certainly has served him well.
Lesch was born one of 11 children — and one of three sets of twins — in a Catholic household and raised on a farm in Holy Cross, located in Ozaukee County, where he made sling shots as a grade schooler and ax and shovel handles as a teenager while taking drafting, woodworking and machine shop classes in high school.
He earned his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he also received a minor in art. He was a welding, fabrication, blueprint reading and metallurgy instructor at Blackhawk Technical College for 36 years and spent 10 more years with the institution on a part-time basis.
Lesch has filed about 1,000 carving magazines in his workshop, located in the old limestone basement of his farmhouse in Clinton Township, where he and his wife of 51 years, Janet, have lived since 1973.
He also has metal cabinets behind his workstation packed with supplies, books and binders/folders containing meticulous files and blueprints of about 100 of the 532 birds of North America.
He may have up to 15 to 20 unfinished projects waiting for his attention, but they all deserve and eventually receive his valuable time and energy.
“It's a small room, but it works for me,” Lesch said of his basement sanctuary. “When I get a little bored I'll try other things, but I like to do songbirds the most. In the wintertime, I spend anywhere from five hours to 15 or even 18 hours a day down here.
“I do try to get six or seven hours of sleep every night, but I've found that I do my best work between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” he added.
His birds typically take between 75 and 100 hours to finish. However, many of his other projects have required into the hundreds, and even the thousands, of hours.
It's no wonder that his carving brethren call him “The Detail Master” and “The Master of Eternal Patience.”
Lesch's woods of choice are basswood, tupelo and buckthorn, along with cottonwood bark, most of which he obtains at shows, where he usually enters carvings in one or two competitive categories.
He also gives carving lessons to children and adults, including one in which club members taught basic skills to residents of the homeless veterans facility near BTC's central campus (former Caravilla).
Lesch does not sell any of his carvings, but he also doesn't get paid for his talks and demonstrations, which he has conducted at churches, schools, nursing homes and other organizations.
He displays at least several dozen of his works at the four or five carving shows he attends every year.
His work has earned numerous awards over the past 15 years, including a second in the novice class at a world wildlife competition in Maryland in 2005 for a red cardinal, only the second songbird he ever carved; a first and best of show at the Wisconsin River Woodcarvers Inc. annual show in 2006 for a Christmas ornament; and at the latter show in 2011 for his whimsical house, winning overall best of show and the judge's, first place and people's choice awards.
While those accolades prove just how much Lesch has improved, a lot of his accomplishments and satisfaction come because of the inordinate amount of time he puts into learning everything he can and mastering his craft.
“I have a saying: 'Not having patience is an excuse. Having patience is a virtue,'” Lesch said. “Club members will bring one of their carvings over and say, 'I'm done. What do you think?' And I'll tell them, 'That doesn't look too bad, but …'”
His travels have taken Lesch to more than 30 countries, including China, Russia, Jordan, Canada, Germany and Mongolia, where he studies wildlife and habitats while taking photographs and collecting crucial, precise measurements of his potential subjects to incorporate the smallest of details into his work.
He also is a champion for the craft and tries to encourage every carver, experienced or novice, especially youth in hopes of nurturing future generations, which includes his teenage granddaughter Autumn, who has been carving for about seven years.
Another one of those special moments occurred on a trip to Madagascar.
“Not too far from the restaurant, there was this little shack, and I mean it was a shack,” Lesch said. “But there was a young gal inside. She had taught herself how to carve and had maybe 100 carvings. And there was one of a school bus, maybe 4 or 5 inches long and 3 inches high, and there was a boy getting on the bus. I thought it was amazing, so I told her so and encouraged her.”