Wonderful woodcarvers

Russel Perschnick and Jim Crocket among many area carvers at this week's Oakhurst Woodcarver's Rendezvous

Brian Wilkinson and Carmen GeorgeApril 17, 2013 

Russel Perschnick of Oakhurst is almost 92, but don't let his age fool you.

Last Saturday, he spent his morning weed eating, followed by his daily jaunt up and down a steep hill twice to feed his 24-year-old pet donkey, Penny.

He's also a member of Central Sierra Woodcarvers, and is a brilliant carver of both wood and bone.

He's one of many carvers who have gathered this week at the Oakhurst Community Center for the 6th Annual Oakhurst Woodcarver's Rendezvous, now readying themselves for their public open house planned from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The public can visit the event anytime this week for free.

Since Perschnick started carving in 1996 at the age of 75, he's carved about 160 angel figurines to give to cancer patients -- all of them blessed by a Catholic priest -- a practice he started after his son Rex was diagnosed with cancer in 2005.

His favorite story about the angels is one he made for a boy from North Fork who had cancer. When carving his angel, the wings wouldn't stay on, so he decided to gift it wingless, calling the angel an "apprentice."

"You have to work hard to get your wings," he told the boy.

Years later, at a Relay for Life event, that boy, then a teenager, pulled his angel out of his pocket to show Perschnick. The apprentice angel had done his job well, inspiring the boy to keep getting better.

"There's a satisfaction in giving," Perschnick said. "I've had some wonderful letters sent to me about my angels."

Perschnick also has cancer. A previous leukemia diagnosis has returned to his body, although speaking with the 91-year-old, you'd have no idea. Still strong, sharp and funny, he lives alone on his Oakhurst property with ease.

He's also given away more than 400 necklaces he's made -- each one dangling a beautiful carved animal, cross or heart of wood or polished white beef bone.

He used to sell some of his carvings, what included fun, small figurines of gangster mobsters and their ladies, but selling is a practice he stopped years ago. He said he could never get used to the people who would throw their money down, and snatch up the carvings without appreciation.

While sitting on a swinging bench in his front yard last weekend, rocking back and forth in the breeze surrounded by green rolling hills and oak trees, he held up more than 20 of his carved necklaces.

"It's a hard thing to say, but there's over 60 hours here," he said.

His time is a precious thing, and Perschnick wants to make sure the recipients of his gifts are kind enough to be worthy of that time.

Son-in-law Richard Pace of Huntington Beach said that of every five people you meet in Oakhurst, it seems like one has a necklace made by Rus.

Pace and Perschnick's son Rex of Lake Tahoe are also at the woodcarvers rendezvous this week. Both are skilled carvers, a talent and passion passed onto them from Perschnick.

Perschnick credits his "crazy imagination" as the inspiration that started his carving.

It's a practice that's also helped him go on after losing his wife of 62 years, Mary, who died in 2006.

"When you carve you don't think," he said. "That saved me when I lost my wife."

He said they had a "30-year" honeymoon in the Oakhurst home they built together, and that Mary taught him that "the little things mean more than the big things" -- perhaps another reason all his carvings are never more than a few inches tall.

"What I love about carving is every bit of carving you make has a little bit of you in them," Perschnick said. "And it's because of your imagination."

Jim Crocket

Traditional wooden boat builder Jim Crocket of North Fork found his passion for boats in the 1930s, as a child on the shores of Bass Lake.

Crocket spent many childhood summers at a cabin on the lake and remembers hanging out at The Pines dock, enamored by the vessels he watched glide across the water.

Seeing Crocket's enthusiasm, an American Indian man that worked at the dock let him drive the rental boats for free if he helped clean them out. Later, the man helped Crocket build a boat of his own at age 10, even providing the Douglas fir boards and molds for its creation.

It was a priceless gift, and the start of a lifelong passion.

Crocket, now 82, has built about 30 boats for people. He started his own traditional wooden boat building business after retiring from a company he owned that made plastic parts -- something he stumbled into after he worked making miniature models of buildings for architects.

He also worked for the Tahoe Boat Company, taught wooden boat building at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco, served as the artist in residence at the Fresno Art Museum, and wrote a forward for a book about wherry boats.

Crocket's creativity has had many different faces over the years, and the latest is the passion he's poured into his woodcarving with Central Sierra Woodcarvers, who are helping host the annual Oakhurst Woodcarver's Rendezvous this week at the Oakhurst Community Center. Along with making wooden boats, he carves beautiful walking sticks of butternut and bass wood, and also enjoys carving miniature wooden figurines of people and animals. His woodcarving inspiration comes largely from his wife's uncle, Earle Brown, a master carver.

He often adorns his boats with carvings -- like his most recent 15-foot, two-man wooden row boat fashioned from mahogany and oak, modeled after a Lincolnville salmon wherry of the 1750s. He named it "Kokanee" in honor of the salmon that were once abundant off the coast of Maine.

"It rows so gorgeously," Crocket said of 'Kokanee.' "You can row all day and never get tired -- it just cuts through the water. We load it up with a picnic basket and the dogs and just take off."

Crocket's still recuperating from a broken femur last May, but is hoping to begin another boat soon. The next project he's planning will be a mahogany skiff, a small one-man row boat for his petite wife, Lloyd. The couple will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in September.

A man of many interests, Crocket's other hobbies include building free flight model airplanes, and sailboat and dirt bike racing. He also dabbled in fiberglass boat building, but the material created a skin reaction that blistered his hands for months. After that, he stuck with wooden boats.

Ultimately, his enjoyment of the craft of boat building centers around his love for peaceful moments on the water, and for Crocket, there's no better vessel for that than a wooden boat -- what he describes with the same affection one might describe watching a beautiful bird of the water at sunset.

"I love to get on the water and row," Crocket said. "These wherries row so beautifully and easy through the water -- that's what thrills me now. To see a boat move through the water."

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