Sometimes the story behind the story is just as compelling. That’s the case with a woodcarving collection that’s billed as America’s largest. The collection, assembled and nurtured by Stanley “Slim” Maroushek, me, features more than 4,000 wood carvings from around the world.
“I like my carvings to say a story of some sort, that they’re doing something and will continue to do so.”
When and why did the collection begin? There’s a deeply personal story behind this collection. I have always found an escape in woodworking, from the time I was a boy in Iowa while being raised by alcoholic parents. “When they’d get fighting among themselves, they stabbed each other and they did all kinds of things.”
While a young boy, I would bike to a neighboring farm where two brothers, Frank and Joseph Bily, lived. The brothers are famous for carving dozens of elaborate mechanical clocks that can still be found in their hometown. I did odd jobs for them. They would let me take a few blocks and figures home, although my father threw most of my collection into a fire. “I was fortunate to save one,” a slightly charred figure of a rabbit. These small carved toys by the Bily Brothers started a lifelong fascination with the craft of woodcarving.
With a troubled childhood, I saw beauty and peacefulness in carved figures, so I started collecting. I didn’t take up carving because I was too busy as a homebuilder and providing for my family.
I have now been collecting for over 60 years, and have nearly 4000 pieces. There are pieces chainsaw-carved from logs and tree trunks, down to matchsticks and toothpicks. There are pieces from the U.S., Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia, Japan, and many countries from around the world. Most of the pieces have been on display in a one-room museum I had in Harmony, MN, and are shown in the slides behind me. Some are fairly common, like saddle-weary cowboys in 10-gallon hats, but most have some sort of unique feature. For example, the hidden whiskey flask in a troll statue or the inner workings of the mechanical bottle-stopper heads from Italy as they tip back a drink or two. The collection includes Philippine monkeys carved from coconuts, a four-foot movable Malaysian snake, and a cypress knee Santa, and Pigasus (a flying oinker). Most are made of wood, but a few are carved from camel bones and water buffalo horns. The centerpiece of the collection is a two-ring circus made by 23 members of the Caricature Carvers of America. Each carver was given a different circus act to portray, and all were arranged in and around a big top tent – trapeze artists, knife throwers, a human cannonball, buck-toothed carneys, a sanitation engineer (scoop in hand), ticket takers, Mr. Tubs the gorilla, and lots and lots of clowns.
Around age 40 I was diagnosed with MS. Soon I was unable to continue my home building business. But, at the encouragement of my daughters, I began woodcarving, a passion which had been kept dormant for many years. Working with wood (especially the exotic), buying and selling, is my livelihood, but carving is what sustains me. For nearly 40 years I have been carving.
The folk art flavor of my statues represents my personal style of woodworking which is rooted in European, realistic and Caricature carving. I have taught woodcarving around the world and am a nationally recognized woodcarving artist.
As a side note, because of my fluency in the Czech language, I have been the host of and ambassador to the descendants of Antonin Dvorak, when they have visited Spillville and I have been in the Czech Republic in recent years. As a consequence, I have carved numerous busts of Dvorak (one a gift to the family) and have had the opportunity to visit Dvorak’s birthplace in the Old Country. As recently as last year, I was invited to the Czech Republic and State of Minnesota Gathering, honoring H.E. Mr. Bohuslav Sobotka, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.
My vision for this collection is to create a place where it can live and be appreciated by others long after I am gone. I would also like to provide a place where other carvers might find a place where their carvings and collections can be preserved. And, finally, I am very interested in “Going Home” with this collection, back to my roots and those of the Bily Brothers, in Spillville, Iowa.
I am hoping the location of the Woodcarving Museum will be next to the Bily Clocks Museum, which allows us to tell the story of two brothers who influenced me to collect, and later create woodcarvings. For anyone interested in woodcarving, coming to Spillville to visit the Bily Clocks AND the Woodcarving Museum of the Heartland makes it easy to see, first hand, carvings influenced by several different cultures. Truly, it will be a mecca for carving enthusiasts.
The museum will provide a place where we can foster the art of woodcarving by offering classes, providing school tours, and working closely with other programs in the area, such as the Folk Art School at Vesterheim Museum in Decorah.
The new museum building will be a climate controlled, secure facility. It will allow for public interaction with some of the carvings, but provide protection for the more delicate pieces. In designing the space, we are building in the flexibility to expand the collection, incorporating pieces from other carvers and collectors. Personally, as I realize I am not getting any younger, and my children do not share the same interest in woodcarving as I do, I set my sights on creating a place that could be a true home for the collection, even after I am gone.
Stanley "Slim" Maroushek