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Artisan reflects on lifetime of creativity

Thursday, 25 April 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Artisan reflects on lifetime of creativity

Julie Winkler shows a whale carving against a backdrop of a sampling of her work at a Jan. 27 presentation held at Pincher Creek United Church. Julie shared anecdotes of her life’s work and a video clip played that afternoon showed this particular piece in progress. The afternoon served as a fundraiser and more than $500 was raised to help with repairs for the carillon and piano at the church.   Photo by Shannon Robison

Artisan reflects on lifetime of creativity

By Shannon Robison

Julie Winkler’s fascination with wood and the things she could create with it began early.

Her father’s workshop was a place where Julie’s imagination could run wild — she was allowed access to all his tools and materials, and there were no complaints when she claimed wood pieces her dad might have planned to use himself.

The young girl learned through observation as she watched her father create simple conveniences and gadgets that made life easier on their Nova Scotia farm, and her own ingenuity was apparent at an early age.

When she was 12, Julie attached large pieces of cork to a pair of overall shorts that allowed her to float in the river and experience buoyancy.

She also built a wooden house to hold a waste-paper basket. When a lever was pushed, the roof of the house opened to reveal the basket. It became a unique piece of furniture for the young girl’s bedroom.

Many childhood adventures were had on Julie’s sailing ice sled and a summertime luge that ran from the roof of the pig pen — her youthful creativity knew no limits.

Skills learned early on have served Julie well throughout her lifetime. While she is known primarily for her woodcarvings, Julie is also an inventor and a master of creative and practical solutions to problems large and small.

She cites the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” as a simple way to convey that many of her creations were inspired by need.

With her husband, Max, and infant son, Terry, Julie moved to the backcountry Brazeau district of Jasper National Park in 1959.

This was Max’s first posting as a warden with Parks Canada and Terry was only 11 weeks old.

The nearest road was 29 kilometres from the warden’s cabin that was their home and could be reached only on horseback or by foot. Once there, it was still another 112-kilometre drive to Jasper.

With Max gone for long stretches and no electricity or modern conveniences, the opportunity for Julie to get creative blossomed.

While sitting by the wood stove waiting for water to boil, Julie “saw something in the wood” and began whittling with a jackknife.

She started building and envisioning ways to make living in tough circumstances a bit easier.

A friend brought a carving set for Julie and her talent for using the tools to bring wood to life began to shine. It was also a way to combat loneliness.

Before the time of microwave ovens and in a remote location without the power to run one anyway, dealing with a hungry baby at 2 a.m. posed a challenge, as Julie wasn’t keen on starting a fire to warm Terry’s bottle.

A practical and simple solution was the creation of her Brazeau baby-bottle warmer. Formula was prepared before bedtime and the bottle was placed in a wire rack that was attached to the wall a few inches above a kerosene lamp on the bedside table.

When Terry cried in the night, Julie would bring him to bed, light the lamp and, in a few minutes, have warm formula to feed him.

“I had to be careful not to go back to sleep as, if left unattended, the thing would be brought to a boil,” Julie says. This happened once and she awoke to the sound of hot formula mixed with pablum hissing as it squirted from the bottle’s nipple into the grill of the radio speaker.

Some inventions, like her musical waterwheel, were born simply of the need to challenge herself to bring an idea to fruition.

If you’ve ever examined the wind-up mechanism of a music box, then you’ve seen how the protruding pins on the wheel pluck the tuned prongs of a steel comb to create a melody. Without the advantage of having seen this process herself, Julie created something similar, but on a much larger scale, with her musical waterwheel.

Using math skills and a songbook that came with a small xylophone, Julie nailed pegs onto a large wooden drum. The arrangement and spacing of the pegs created a map for the music — as the drum turned, levers were tripped, lifting and dropping the playing tips onto xylophone bars to generate the tune.

Limited to the melodies included in the songbook, Julie’s first arrangement of pegs made the waterwheel play “Jingle Bells.” She later repositioned the pegs to play four bars of “Home Sweet Home” with each full rotation of the drum.

Julie used waterwheels to create energy to power mechanisms in many other creations, including her water-tank cuckoo, a gravity-fed watering system and a device intended to lift water from the creek.

Her unpublished book All Necessity’s Children is filled with photos and schematics of her many inventions and “simple conveniences.” It is an archive of creations from childhood through to retirement at the couple’s Twin Butte area ranch.

Julie’s wood carvings were originally done completely with hand tools and she quips that she once had the arms of a lady wrestler.

While most of her pieces were made of wood, Julie was also a hunter and made use of all parts of the animals beyond the meat. An eight-sided Blackfoot drum made from a deer hide hangs on her living room wall and she also made carvings from the antlers and bones.

Julie’s carving “hobby” provided her only source of income and she remains grateful that Max didn’t pressure her to take on “real work” once they returned to civilization from his backcountry work in 1966.

“I loved the life,” Julie says. “It wasn’t easy but it was a rich and happy one.”

Over the years, her work became easier with power tools and well-equipped workshops, but it is Julie’s knack for seeing things in the wood, and letting the natural lines of the selected piece accentuate the figure, that make her works very personal and very special.

From Jasper the Bear figurines to aeolian harps to wooden mushrooms to carvings of people in her life; from the practical and sensible to the unique and ornate, Julie’s work covers an amazing span.

She shared her talent through teaching and many in the area have memories of learning to carve spoons under her tutelage.

She hasn’t carved much since 2000 thanks to her “old and arthritic fingers.”

With years of work to show that she is limited only by the degree of her imagination, Julie still has much to share.

An exhibition last winter at the Pincher Creek United Church attracted a full house of folks interested to see Julie’s work and to hear her story.

It’s an amazing tale that could span many newspaper pages.

At 89, her mind is as sharp as the tools that have created her legacy and she carries a fantastic sense of humour.

Julie has turned her focus to writing and has much yet to share through her storytelling.

20190127 Julie Winkler Water Wheel

The playing tips of the levers on Julie’s waterwheel were empty .303 shell casings, which provided weight and a metallic sound when striking the xylophone bars. A carefully placed rubber-covered “bounce board” caused the shell casings to bounce off the key again to create a clear ringing note.   Photo from All Necessity’s Children by Julie Winkler

20190127 Julie Winkler 3

Julie shows her carving tools in an ornate holder she made herself, of course.

20190127 Julie Winkler 2

The smooth wood of Julie’s carvings provides a sensory delight.