Local woodworker crafts whimsical pieces
February 15, 2014
PHOTO/ARTICLE by LESLIE RENKEN/JOURNAL STAR
Since retiring from a long career as a professional cabinet maker, Jeff Selke has been exploring the more artistic side of wood. Selke stands in the workshop behind his Alta home recently.
Woodworker Jeff Selke's Alta workshop is full of gorgeous slabs of wood, and his creations are a testament to the artisan's sophisticated taste in the material. But, like most woodworkers, he learned his craft on something a bit more rustic.
"My first recollections are of going down to Benny Schwartz and pulling orange crates out of the garbage," said Selke, who grew up on Bigelow Street not far from the grocery store. "I've been woodworking all my life — as soon as I could hold a hammer, I think."
After pulling out the nails to dismantle the crates, a youthful Selke used the salvaged wood to make all manner of things. At one point he'd even acquired enough wood to build a fort. By the time Selke was in high school he knew of his career path, and after graduating in 1975 he began an apprenticeship with a woodworking shop in the Amana Colonies in Iowa.
"I always got satisfaction from making stuff," said Selke "That's why I got into woodworking."
During his 35-year career, Selke worked with wood in a number of capacities, some more creative than others. When he took early retirement from Rothan Millwork Company three years ago he was sure of two things — first, that his love for the medium was undiminished and, secondly, that he didn't want to do any more production work.
Still, old habits die hard. The first thing Selke made to kick off his second career he made in triplicate — three elegant little washstands. It didn't take long for him to find out that the market for washstands was saturated, however, the exercise did help him refine his plans. He realized he wanted to make one-of-a-kind, unique pieces — he realized he wanted to make art.
"I'm a craftsman, and I'm imaginative, and those two things combined make me an artist," said Selke. It took a little time, but soon his imagination was running free.
"Now if I have a wild idea, I'm gonna do it — that's the freedom of being an artist," he said.
Each of Selke's flawlessly-crafted pieces exhibits a marvelous sense of whimsy. Selke's wagon coffee table — a coffee table that looks like a child's wagon — has a guitar neck instead of a wagon handle. A tiny inlaid butterfly perches at the top. The guitar theme re-emerges in a series of wall plaques — contrasting wood veneers form the curves of a guitar, framing a guitar fret board complete with strings. A table shaped like an old-fashioned piece of luggage has rosewood latches and a mahogany handle, but instead of opening like a suitcase, the front is equipped with a drawer.
Ideas often come to Selke in the middle of the night and at other quiet moments. He was lying in a hammock outside his backyard shop when he got the idea to make a pair of narrow, natural-edged walnut slabs into a little corner table. A late night thunderstorm rumbled outside when Selke got the idea for the guitar wall plaques.
Pieces often come about because of the challenge involved — Selke loves working out new construction techniques and incorporating non-traditional materials. He built a little side table with a floating top held in place with leather straps. A tall cupboard features galvanized pipe accents that make the honey locust and black locust body look like it's floating within a framework of white birch.
Selke has exhibited his work at several galleries, including Studios on Sheridan, and The Prairie Arts Center in Bishop Hill. He also sells at art fairs during the summer. Selke became a member of the Central Illinois Artist Organization a few years ago, and enjoys participating in their First Friday events.
"What a great organization — I can't believe they let me in," said Selke with characteristic modesty. "To get to meet some of the unbelievably talented people here in Peoria. And they get mad at me if I don't call myself an artist."
The artists in CIAO helped inspire a creativity that got a little lost during the years Selke spent woodworking for a living. But while he is enjoying the re-awakening of his artistic side, Selke doesn't regret making a career of his muse.
"Most people don't get to do what they want to do in life, but if you can get close, you are lucky."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.