Donovan Dahmen: Carved Wood Design
Up the shore in Grand Portage, artist Donovan Dahmen has crafted a life of carving stunning wood works by hand. Some may recognize his work from the Spirit Tree installation at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, a massive project that took over a year to create. Throughout all of his work, Dahmen creates art inspired by his Ojibwe culture and roots, and that is both made from and reflects the natural beauty of the North Shore.
Dahmen’s interest in art goes back to grade school, when he would create designs for fellow students to color. He went on to art school through the Institute of American Indian Arts, but it was only a few years ago that he got seriously into wood carving. Dahmen said that he was inspired to begin carving when he was looking at a drawing of an eagle, and it reminded him of wood pieces. Equipped with just a few hand tools, he set to work on his first wood design piece and he has been carving ever since.
The style of wood design that Dahmen makes can be categorized as intarsia. Intarsia involves cutting and fitting smaller pieces of wood together to make a larger design or picture, similar to how a mosaic does with tile. Dahmen did not intentionally set out to do intarsia; rather, he began creating, and it was only later that another local artist saw his work and was reminded of intarsia, but with a unique style.
“My work has its own style,” said Dahmen. “My pieces tend to be more curved, and I like working with hand files—I get more of a feel for and a connection to the wood that way. I once posed a question in an intarsia group to see how many others used hand files, and not many others do.”
Creating such intricate art by hand is no short process. Dahmen starts with an idea, and then over many months works to bring that idea to life.
“Most of my ideas come from my Native culture and roots,” he said. “I want to draw upon nature and natural elements, and my culture connects with that.”
Once the design is ready, he selects which wood to use, focusing on using as much local wood as possible. Having a variety of colors give each piece depth, and he often works with wood such as black ash, birch and aspen, as well as sourcing mahogany or other unique colors as needed. He then gets to work cutting and shaping each of the many pieces. Then the pieces are tightly fitted together before being hand-coated with finish.
“The Spirit Tree piece took me a year and a half to do, though I didn’t work on it every day,” Dahmen said. “I try to live with the seasons, and take off time for wild ricing and hunting. Still, if I had worked on it every single day it would have taken about seven months.”
Looking ahead, Dahmen has a few new projects in the works. He recently got a commission from a woman who was travelling and happened to see his Spirit Tree installation at the Grand Portage Lodge. He is also working on a project with over 100 pieces, one he describes as a spiritual piece that reflects the renewing presence in the pre-dawn silence.
Those who are interested in learning more can visit Donovan Dahmen’s Facebook page.
Geoff Vukelich: Handcrafted Outdoor Gear
Geoff Vukelich has a deep love for the outdoors. At DAM Goods and Gear in Duluth, Vukelich creates handmade fishing rods, landing nets, snowshoes and canoe paddles that help people to get outdoors and explore the Northern Wilds. DAM Goods and Gear isn’t just any gear store, however; it’s a business founded on providing a completely personalized experience, protecting the environment, and embodying the fact that stories are what ultimately matter to us most.
Geoff Vukelich credits his skill, in part, to growing up with a craftsmen heritage. His father’s side were carpenters and his mother’s side were steel engineers, and he grew up with a mindset of fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them away to buy something new.
“We had vintage equipment that got handed down to us—it was utilitarian and worked excellently,” he said. “So many people today live in a throwaway culture, and they forget that old things were made of someone’s time and energy, or that you can make new things out of old stuff.”
From a young age, Vukelich began building his own paddles and rods, the beginnings of a craft that his business is focused on today. The creation process begins when a customer reaches out with something they need, and all along the way the process is focused on each individual and their unique needs. Factors such as size, shape, the customer’s goals and hobbies, and incorporating special items are used to create a product that is 100 percent one of a kind.
“We can do inlays if someone wants to use a piece of their own special wood, paper, or whatever is the most meaningful,” Vukelich said. “We don’t use patterns—we’re the most custom gear shop in the world.”
The love of nature and respect for the environment can be seen in every step of the creation process at DAM Goods and Gear. Vukelich does not stock materials; rather, all of the wood used is reclaimed, upcycled, or otherwise salvaged, and the history of wood is one of the things that Vukelich loves about his work. He cuts the wood thinly and bends it the way it wants to bend, and ensures that each piece of gear is durable enough to endure a lifetime of use. When a product is finished and ready for delivery, Vukelich makes the effort to meet up with people or meet halfway to get it delivered, keeping the carbon footprint as small as possible.
In addition to new creations, DAM Goods and Gear also offers gear repair, a part of the job that Vukelich especially enjoys. He shared a story of a time when a man approached him about a fishing rod that had snapped in half. The rod once belonged to a family member who had since passed away, and the rod was especially meaningful to the family. Vukelich was able to cut, segment, and put the rod back together so it could continue to be used for years to come.
“This is why I’m in business,” Vukelich said. “It’s not about money; it’s about preserving meaning. I want to repair things that mean a lot to people so they don’t have to throw it out and replace it with something new.”
To learn more about DAM Goods and Gear, visit: damgoodsandgear.com.