By CRISTINA JANNEY
Willie says he gets inspiration from all kinds of places — a leaf, a penguin, a strange knot in the wood. He said he has no style.
“Whatever you see, whatever you imagine,” he said of his inspiration.
He says the sculptures are not based on people, but he often refers to them as “he” or “she” as he rotates them in the light and describes how the curves and bends emerged from rectangular blocks of walnut, pine or mahogany.
“Remember the walk of the penguins to the ocean …” he said holding up a sculpture. “This particular penguin here. They usually just lay one egg, but this one has two. You add an egg and then some ice to support the thing. You don’t even see the penguin, but the ‘March of the Penguins’ is what brought this on. Just the way they walk. Dalk, dalk, dalk.”
Pfeifer, 91, will have an exhibit, “Fascinating Forms: Six Decades of Sculpture in Wood & Metal,” from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at the C.A.T.S. Gallery at Fort Hays State University as part of Hays Arts Council Fall Art Walk. The main art walk will be from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday (See full schedule below), but the C.A.T.S. gallery is opening early for Pfeifer’s show.
Some of Pfeifer’s pieces just start as doodles. As we were talking, he sat down with a piece of paper and drew an infinity symbol. From there he started subtly changing the curves with a few scratches here and a rub of the eraser there. He talked as he molded the form into shape. Within a few minutes, something akin to one of his sculptures emerged from the page.
“You just run with it,” he said.
His has a file containing several hundred drawing, He has some labeled “pursue when in a good mood” or “pursue when in a bad mood.”
Everyone sees something different in his art. Pfeifer’s wife told him once one of his sculptures was immoral.
“I said, ‘What? It is a duck that fell over.’ She said, ‘What I see is my dad bending over the tub without any shorts on,” he said chuckling as he tuned the sculpture in his work-worn hands.
He began working with wood when he was only 4. He picked up the trade from his grandpa Dreiling, who was a carpenter and lived across the street. He said he hated memorizing when he was in school, preferring to work with his hands. He got kicked out of Latin at St. Joseph Military Academy and banished to the industrial arts department. He loved it.
The country was embroiled in World War II and all the abled-bodied young men where off fighting. This left Ed Davis, the head of the Fort Hays Industrial Arts Department with no students, so he started teaching the students at St. Joe. Pfeifer spent his high school years learning from Davis at St. Joe and then another three and half years studying with him at FHSU. However, he never earned his degree.
At that time, Fort Hays was a teacher’s college, and the industrial arts degree required a semester of student teaching. Pfeifer had a good job offer and he wanted to get married, so opted not to complete the program.
Pfeifer went to work as a woodworker and eventually bought the Hays Planing Mill in 1957. The mill specialized in handcrafted furniture for churches — pews, pulpits, etc. Pfeifer expanded the mill’s work into architectural mill work, and he often worked as a general contractor. This required Pfeifer to spend hours reviewing architectural plans.
“I would sit so long. I would get up and walk around the shop, grab a piece of would and go cut something,” he said.
The diversion slowly grew into a hobby of making sculptures and 3-D puzzles using a band saw. He sold the pieces on the side. He thought at one point he might make a living out of his hobby. He could make about $500 on a large batch of puzzles, but he needed to earn about 10 times that to pay the bills. His accountant urged him to keep his day job.
“I’ve know too many starving artists,” Pfeifer said.
In 1970 he was asked to do a show along side another artist, but he hasn’t done a major art show since.
Pfeifer sold the Planing Mill in 1993. Although Pfeifer stayed active in his retirement, he said he got bored easily.
He didn’t really like to watch TV. He taught himself to speed read to digest all the architectural specs when he was working, so he reads two newspapers daily plus downs the eight magazines he subscribes to. He is a self-described golf nut, but age ultimately ended that as a regular pastime. He volunteers, managing maintenance at Castillian Gardens where he lives and served as the president of the Ellis County Historical Society multiple times.
He also used to play poker with some buddies, but at 91, he has outlived several of those friends.
“Sitting around the house was driving me and my wife crazy,” he said.
He kept woodworking through everything, about four hours a day, seven days a week. He cleaned out a garage at Castillian Gardens, which he transformed into a small shop.
Pfeifer had never spent any time in the hospital and never taken any regular prescription medication until several years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent major surgery. His doctor sent him to Ascension Via Christi in Hays for rehab after the surgery. He had done volunteer work at the nursing center and knew how to get in and out of all the doors, so he wandered the halls at night when he couldn’t sleep.
He was told on a Friday he would be starting physical therapy on the following Monday. Over the weekend, he read up on PT and then practiced going up and down stairs. By Monday, he could go up and down the stairs backward. He was supposed to be in rehab for a month, but they sent him him home after 17 days. He said it was because he was such a trouble maker.
After the surgery, Pfeifer said he threw himself even more into his woodworking. He has also organized and cataloged all his work and patterns. None of his children are woodworkers, so he plans to donate the bulk of his pieces to the Industrial Arts Department at FHSU.
Even at 91, every day is a new day for Pfeifer, a new opportunity to create, to conjure something beautiful from wood that most people see as formless. He said he is inspired by all of his senses — sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
“A lot of people go through life not stimulated by anything,” he said. “Other people are very aware of their surroundings and they feed on them.”
Pfeifer told the story of a nun he had as a teacher when he was in Catholic school. When she would walk the students to St. Joseph’s church from the school, she would often stop to point out things she saw along the way.
“She would say, ‘Look at that tree. See how it is leafing out. This is what it does in the summer …’ or ‘Stop look at the such and such bird.’ … She would just open up a whole new world for me. … She made me aware of the surroundings.”
Below is a complete schedule for the Fall Art Walk.