by Toni Morehead, Feature correspondent
"How talented you are!" "What an unusual art form!" are the statements often heard by artist, Brock Blosser, when he exhibits his wood carvings. But Brock, a soft-spoken man who grew up in Warsaw and is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lowell Blosser, 915 E. Center St., explains that although the kind of wood carving he does is new to people in the United States, it has actually been practiced for hundreds of years in Tyrol, a mountain province situated in the Swiss-Austrian-Italian Alps.
The carvings, which are called "Wurtzel Koerpfer" (rootheads) or "Berggeister" (mountain spirits) date from pre-Christian times, when the people believed in multiple spirits and designed the carvings to scare away the evil ones. People who lived in a remote mountain region would display a very grotesque, frightening-looking carving. People who lived in a town or walled city could display more pleasant, even whimsical, "Wurtzel Koerpfer" since it was believed that the evil spirits weren't as great a threat in more populated areas. Today "Wurtzel Koerpfer" faces are pleasant and whimsical; they are purchased primarily as good luck charms.
But how does an Economics Major, a young man from Warsaw Indiana become a carver of Tyrol Mountain "Wurtzel Koerpfer"? First he graduates from Indiana University and serves in the U. S. Army in Germany, where he marries his college sweetheart; then he comes home to more schooling and a job with General Mills, but with a firm resolve to return to Germany for the 1972 Olympics.
When the Blossers, Brock and Karen, returned to Germany, they intended to stay a while, traveling and working in their respective fields, (she's a secondary teacher) but a visit with a friend of Karen's in Vienna brought an unexpected turn of events. As Brock puts it: "One day she said, 'Would you like to meet a wood-carver friend of mine?' And I said, I think that would be tremendous, very interesting!" (after all, how many wood carvers do you meet in the states?)
So, at an afternoon gathering, the Blossers met Sepp Horngachger: "The Europeans have a custom... they'll invite you to their house, not for a party or a meal but in between meals; it's almost like the English 'Tea' but you'll have alcoholic beverages, like wine, and sausages or cold cuts... the table is the focal point of conversation and everyone enters into the conversation. There was tremendous conversation and we even got to talking about philosophical things."
When the Blossers expressed their dissatisfaction with what they'd been doing, Mr. Horngacher asked Brock if he'd like to learn to carve wood. "It just kind of took me back" said Brock, "but I told him Karen and I would like to think on it. So Karen and I talked long hours that night and we decided it would be something we could try.
Thus we have the circumstances that led the Blossers to live in Vienna (from Sept. '72 to April '73) and study under Sepp Horngacher, under whose tutelage Brock became proficient enough to sell his carvings in Austria and Germany - frequently to American Military Personnel - and Karen acquired the skill needed to do all of Sepp's finishing work - even his most expensive church pieces.
Carving Since 6
In talking further about Mr. Horngacher, Brock said that Sepp had carved wood since age 6 and had continued carving part-time as an adult, often selling his work. His occupation, however, had been that of a precision tool and die maker until a series of heart attacks had forced him to seek a different kind of work. Upon the suggestion of his doctor Sepp had turned to carving full-time.
"So for four or five years, he'd been doing it successfully and making a living at it. When we left he was working on a contract to do huge, huge church pieces that amounted to thousands of dollars."
Brock stresses that Sepp's artistic and financial success is doubly significant because, for most carvings, (such as those sold in Oberammergau) the preliminary carving is done by machine, with the artist doing the finishing carving. "But Sepps' work is completely hand done and is so good that people don't mind paying the higher prices that hand-carving demands."
When the subject of language and communication arose, Brock said that ever since a visit in Germany in 1964, he'd felt the need to learn the language, so when Brock and Karen knew they would return for the '72 Olympics, they attended classes in German to supplement what they'd learned during Brock's army tour of duty.
While in Austria, Brock and Karen liked to converse with the Austrians better than with the Germans. They seemed more sympathetic and compassionate; they were willing to help us with the language . . . Germans would rather practice their English."
Sepp Horngacher helped add to their knowledge of German dialects because he primarily spoke in Viennese or Tyrolean dialect. ". . . when he'd be working or he'd be busy, carving, and I'd asked him a question, he'd answer me in Viennese, so it became imperative for me to learn some Viennese while I was there."
Brock spoke about Viennese as if it were a separate language. "It almost is, dialects from the other provinces in Austria and Bavaria can be understood interchangeably, but the Viennese is almost a distinct dialect in itself."As to how the Viennese feel about their language, Brock said: "The Viennese have a lot of pride in their dialect, and they seem to have a contempt for the German because he won't try to learn their dialect. He'll only speak high German."
Brock has found that the Viennese dialect amuses the teacher of the German classes in which he is currently enrolled: "... he'll smile and say: 'Well, that's not quite right, but I know what you mean.' "
Most visitors to far off cities or countries carry something of that place in their hearts; it may be the smell of the air on a mountain highway, or the sight of wintery clouds playing magician with snow-frosted mountains. Experiencing the same sights, sounds and language make you feel a part of that place. Brock and Karen are no different: "We really feel like we're a part of Austria; we can't feel like we're natives, but ... I think we really have a compassion for Vienna."
Brock and Karen know not only what an Austrian sees but also a bit of what he thinks and feels: "They've got all kinds of little superstitions and quirks. They had a saying that anyone who lived down on the Danube River was less susceptible to heart disease and respiratory diseases. We lived down on the river and I can seriously say I was never sick all the time I was there, and here at home, I get colds all the time in the winter."
After the Blossers had been in Vienna about a month, Brock appeared with Sepp on Austrian television. "Sepp said he had a couple very good friends who worked for the Austrian Television Co., who'd talked their people into making a special on Sepp. The director was a young fellow who was trying to make an impression . . . he had his own idea about what I should say, and it sounded corny, like -'The Indians of long ago would take their furs into the fort to sell their furs ..' and he wanted me to say it in German. Finally it was kind of a compromise, I said a few things he wanted me to say and then I stumbled through my portions -- with about ten takes! My little talk was about 10 seconds, the primary focus was on Sepp. It was a beautifully produced film, though, they even followed him to the mountains while he gathered wood.
American television has no monopoly on making celebrities, for as Brock put it: "I saw a turning point for Sepp as a result of that television program. People started to notice him and know who he was and they came into his shop."
The wood that Brock and Sepp used for their carvings is "Zirbenholz," or Stone Pine. "It's a twisted, dense wood that only grows in the mountains of Austria, at over a mile in altitude ... the only place that this wood is found is Siberia, and I told Karen we weren't going to Siberia!" Brock said with a smile.
"I was worried that I wouldn't find the right kind of wood here in the states, because the "Wurtzel Koerpfer" requires a soft wood with an interesting shape (the term "Wurtzel Koerpfer" refers to anything that has to do with carving on an irregularly shaped piece, such as grape vines or the knots of trees) but in researching, I found that the White Pine is similar to the Stone Pine in Europe, and it's common-even here in Indiana. And in Canada every second tree is White Pine! I also found that there are others we can use: Red Pine, Spruce, even Birch and Poplar are nice to carve."
For his carving, Brock uses only fallen trees. "They're good because they've aged, driftwood is good too. But I found that the best thing is to find a tree that has fallen into the water, because it's been aged by the water. I just go around in my boat and cut what I need with my chain saw. And I don't need much; all the carving I've done this winter came from two trees.
After Brock has cut the pieces he needs from fallen trees, (he takes pieces from around and a few inches on either side of a branch) he splits off a piece, allowing enough on the front to carve, then he drills a hole in the back. with a large screw that he puts up from the bottom of his work table and into the drilled hole, he fastens the fresh piece of wood to the work table to keep it immobile while he works. then with one of the eighty various sized knives he owns, he carves the face of a new "Wurtzel Koerpfer."
When he's finished several carvings, (a big head takes about a day) he cares for their baby boy, Eli, while Karen does the finishing. First Karen stains the piece and, before the stain is dry, she wipes it off. then after letting it dry, sands the highlights of the face, the nose, lips, - the features of the face. In the next step, Karen paints the eyes white with an acrylic paint, and the nose and cheeks and lips with red watercolor. After painting a little white on the beard to highlight it she lets it dry. The final step is to wax the whole face several times with paste wax.
Brock says his style is similar to Sepp's, but, as Sepp had predicted, he is developing his own style. Sepp was well worth copying, Brock feels, because Sepp, who had developed his style to be different from what was being sold in Austria, did very excellent, detailed work. and Brock is additionally like Sepp in that he believes in doing his carving completely by hand.
If it seems a bit far-fetched that a man with a business education should suddenly become an artist just because someone asked him if he'd like to learn to carve wood, consider Brock Blosser's family background: Brock's brother, Bob, is an artist living in San Francisco. "He's always excelled in art, he would win national awards!" Brock's uncle, Merrill Blosser, of Nappanee is a retired comic strip writer who drew "Freckles and His Friends". "When he retired, I think he had the longest continuous running comic strip under one guy, over 50 years he wrote it." Brock's father Lowell, has served Warsaw for more than 40 years as a photographer. And, Brock continues, "I have a niece that teaches Art at U.C.L.A. So, There's really some artistic talent in my family, and although I've never had any training, I think I just got a little inkling of that. And I feel that if you want to do something, if you like to do it, you can get good at it.
Brock and Karen returned to the United States right before the birth of their son, Eli, and since that time have lived in Elkhart. They have a shop in their home and they exhibit their work at various art shows and festivals, such as a recent one at Scottsdale Mall in South Bend.
Starting in May a store in Niles, Michigan will handle their work, but, though Brock has been approached about putting his work in exclusive gift shops, he prefers to show and sell his work so that it's "...available to everybody ... not just to people who have a lot of money. I like the art festival though, 'cause you're on a person to person basis. and I keep track of the people I sell to; I take their name and address and record it on the color slide of that particular face. I don't make that many --about 400-500 a year -so I can keep track."
What about the future? Brock and Karen hope to live in Canada the year around, in a cabin they built when they were in Minneapolis because there they can live inexpensively, and they can also find all the wood they need. "There's enough wood on our property alone for me to carve the rest of my life!"
As to whether Brock will continue to carve the rest of his life, he says that he is very satisfied right now, he enjoys the kind of carving he does. "...with faces you can have a good time. You know, when you finish a face you might just sit there and laugh a bit, and there wasn't even anything there before to laugh at.
Brock is not alone in his enjoyment of the "Wurtzel Koerpfer" he carves. people who look at them smile and then say things like : "cute", "enchanting", "unusual". Reactions may vary but one thing in common, people find pleasure in looking at Brock and Karen Blosser's work. And, who knows, maybe they do bring good luck. After all, isn't pleasure a kind of good luck!
Warsaw Times Union, Spotlight April 20 - 27, ___ (Unknown year)