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Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center
Local Veteran carves his way to number one
By Story and photos by John Jamison, public affairs officer
Wednesday, April 28, 2021“Do you have time for a short story?” Sally Westfahl asked. I agreed that I did, and she told me how her husband, Russel, had fallen for his craft. “We were at a trailer park in Florida and he took a class on carving,” she said.
“The next time we went to Florida,” Sally continued, “he had two boxes of tools for carving.” As she spoke, he shook his head and smiled, he knew what was coming. “The time after that, he had six big boxes full of carving stuff! He had the car full of stuff!”
Russel Westfahl took first place for his entry in the 2020 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. His winning birdhouse was entered and won in the Transfer/Engraving Art Kit category. “I put about 90 hours into that birdhouse,” he said. “But I never thought it would go all the way.”
A resident of Crystal Falls, Mich., Westfahl is an 89-year-old veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who served from 1952 to 1954. He was twice supposed to end up in the middle of the Korean War. “I was in the dentist’s chair and he was working on me. The sergeant came in and started picking 480 guys from my unit to go over,” he said.
When the sergeant pointed to Westfahl, the dentist told him no. “He said he had too much work to do on me at the time,” Russ said. “I found out later that every one of the men chosen that day ended up as casualties of the war. Whether they were just wounded or killed I don’t know.” He took a moment, “I still think about that sometimes.”
The second time was early 1953 and an even closer call. “We were training in the jungle to go help the French in Indo-China,” he said. “A few weeks after Eisenhower became president, he came to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii to talk to us. He said you aren’t going to Indo-China, you all are headed to Korea.”
“That was a surprise to us because now we would be going where it was cold! In a couple months, we boarded the ship and sailed,” he said. The armistice that ended hostilities in Korea was signed on July 27, 1953. “While we are in route, they signed the thing and we were called back. I’m thankful every day,” he paused, “but that has nothing to do with carving.”
The Westfahls’ home is proudly adorned with his carvings. From fish to fowl, he has carved almost everything. He picks up a delicately crafted white egret. “This is the first carving that I did when I was at that first class.” It sits next to more carvings near the window in his kitchen.
His work is displayed upstairs and downstairs. Most shelves hold at least one of his pieces. His basement is filled with carvings of fish, birds, people, and intricate designs that his hands have tirelessly created. “Once, I saw this gal carving flowers and in two weeks I learned how to do that,” he said. “Since then I have carved more than 7,000 of them. Sally makes the arrangements for them.”
Westfahl has dabbled a bit in other creative ventures; he painted for a few years; tried his hand at pyrography, or wood burning; and fly tying and lure making. All of which circles back to the attention to detail he came by in what he did as a career. “I was a quality control analyst at the Ladish Company. We helped to build fuel tanks for the space shuttle,” he said. “I also taught statistical process control.”
In all, Wesfahl has created 670 carvings; not counting the flowers. He has won more than 80 ribbons in carving competitions and has taught numerous classes to anyone who wanted to learn about carving. “I entered three pieces in the Creative Arts Festival. In my opinion, the one that took first place was the worst of the three,” he laughed.
The VA uses creative arts as one form of rehabilitative treatment to help Veterans in the healing and recovery process. Each year, veterans enrolled at VA health care facilities showcase their talents in local creative arts competitions sponsored by their local VA Medical Center. Submissions that place first locally will advance to the national competition.
There were 21 local veterans who entered 40 pieces of art into the competition last year. They had to compete virtually for most of the festival because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The in-person 2020 NVCAF was moved to a virtual festival out of an abundance of caution,” said Jesse Kerley, the local point of contact for the Creative Arts Festival and a recreational therapist at the Iron Mountain VA.
“Veterans who participate are of all ages and abilities. Some have conditions that cause them to be immunocompromised, making travel during a pandemic unsafe,” he said. Having a virtual festival was safer for people's health while also being more inclusive for those who would not have been able to attend in-person.
“We aren’t going to be having the in-person day, or take walk-in entries this year because of COVID,” Kerley said. “Normally we would hold the submissions for judging. This year we will have a photographer take pictures and send them to be judged.”
The competition will be three days in Iron Mountain and one in Rhinelander. Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare can bring applications and art/submissions for entry on one of the four dates, times, and locations listed below.
· Iron Mountain- Monday, June 14 from 9:00-11:00am CT- 3rd floor Whole Health
· Iron Mountain- Wednesday, June 30 from 1:00-3:00pm CT- 3rd floor Whole Health
· Iron Mountain- Wednesday July 14 from 1:00-3:00pm CT- 3rd floor Whole Health
· Rhinelander CBOC- Thursday July 15 from 1:00-3:00pm CT
“Local Judging will take place sometime in August,” Kerley said. The first-place winner in each category will move forward to the national competition for judging. The national festival is in St. Petersburg, Florida from April 18-24, 2022. Kerley added, “right now it’s planned as an in-person festival.”
For more information contact Boone Kerley at (906) 774-3300, extension 34582, or e-mail him at: Jesse.Kerley@va.gov.