Fanning the tradition

TUSTIN — While a small block of wood may be a worthless scrap in the hands of an unskilled craftsman, the same piece of wood in Glen VanAntwerp’s hands is 30 minutes away from becoming a delicate work of art.

VanAntwerp makes cedar fans from a single piece of cedar ranging in size from a few inches long to a several-foot fence post.

“I like to see what the wood will do. Every piece of wood is different,” VanAntwerp said. “The design that I’m making is dependent on what the wood will allow me to do. That’s what’s fun for me. Every piece turns out different.”

Living in Tustin on property that has been in his family for generations, VanAntwerp harvests timber that has fallen down on his land to use for his carvings. He completes his projects in a 1,200-square-foot cabin where his grandparents lived with their family of nine.

Learning the art at the age of 12 from his grandfather, who was a Michigan lumberjack, VanAntwerp carries on the unique craft as a family tradition.

“I was in my 20s before I even knew that anyone outside my family did this,” he said.

He stores pieces of wood in a refrigerator to maintain even humidity. Using only a few hand-carving tools, the retired Tustin resident carves the wood delicately, while working through uneven pieces and knots.

“My grandfather used to make them using only a jack knife, so that took a long long time,” he said.

The process is completed in three basic steps: carving parellel notches to create a “waist” and interlocking edges, splitting the leaves into separate slices still attached to the bottom portion and opening the fan by pulling the leaves apart and locking them together. He can make the most basic fan in less than 30 minutes.

After carving the wood and before separating the leaves, he soaks the piece in boiling water for no less than five minutes.

“It’s like a piece of spaghetti. The larger pieces I boil for longer,” VanAntwerp said. “I soaked the fence post fan I made in a tub of water for months and then I boiled it for a half an hour.”

After the wood is boiled, it can be pulled and maneuvered without cracking. The fan is opened by pulling the pieces apart and latching them behind one another.

When the fan is opened, he adds a unique touch to each fan by sanding or varnishing the handle, carving the handles to look like birds or weaving ribbon through the leaves.

“That was something that he came up with,” said VanAntwerp’s wife, Dianne. “I don’t think anybody else has put ribbons in their fans.”

Dianne, who helps him open fans when he is strapped for time, said she was thrilled the first time she received a fan as a gift from her husband.

“He gave me a fan for our first Valentine’s Day,” Dianne said. “I thought is was (nice).”

Some of VanAntwerp’s fans are available on his website, www.cedarfans.com, starting at $30. Others are custom-designed fans made to fit the requests of customers interested in displaying his work.

Along with dazzling customers and family members with his creations, VanAntwerp’s art has been honored at the state level.

In 2001, he won the Michigan Heritage Award for his unique carvings and more recently Gov. Rick Snyder gave VanAntwerp’s fans as presents on a visit to Japan.

“Since the governor of our sister state in Japan was a woman, and fans and handmade items are really important in Asian culture, they thought that would be the perfect gift,” VanAntwerp said.

He also was a guest artist on PBS’ “Woodright’s Shop with Roy Underhill” and Central Michigan University Public Television’s “Window to the Arts” program, and has been featured in many print publications.

Having learned the craft from his ancestors, VanAntwerp plans to keep the tradition in the family. With two grown children and eight grandchildren, VanAntwerp already has worked to pass down the craft. His son made fans for the bridesmaids in his wedding, and his daughter also has made fans.

He even has let some of his grandchildren try their hand at the craft.

“Some of the older ones have tried it. My grandson, who is 11, and my oldest granddaughter, who’s 12, both have made fans. The next youngest ones — who are nine — I’ve worked with a bit,” VanAntwerp said. “They’re not quite as cautious, so they need a bit more guidance.”

As a recently retired computer information systems worker at the Cadillac hospital, VanAntwerp has plans to make his cabin workshop into a display house for his art in the future.

For more on VanAntwerp’s cedar fans, visit www.cedarfans.com