Archive for Sunday, March 20, 2005

Kansas carver’s works collected around world

Atchison artist who survived Nazis, loss of four fingers finds beauty in the details

March 20, 2005


— Joseph Ihasz was meant to be a carver.

The Nazi occupation of his homeland couldn't deter him. And later, a wood-working accident that took four fingers couldn't stop him.

"You've got to have lots of perseverance if you want to make a living at it," he said.

Ihasz, 78, is best known for his wood, ivory and ebony carvings of saints and crucifixes, although he also does figurative, animal, mythological and more stylized modern designs. His portfolio includes stone carvings, metal etchings and detailed carvings on wooden gun stocks and steel trigger guards.

His works are in private collections and churches throughout the world. A pair of carved 6-foot-tall doors went to an Episcopal church in Atchison. A nunnery in Los Angeles became the home for a foot-tall ivory carving of the Madonna. Elaborately carved chairs went to a cabinet maker in Albuquerque.

"I have carvings in Arabia, Finland, Canada and parts of the United States," Ihasz said. "I never did advertise. It's through word of mouth."

The Rev. Blaine Schultz, associate professor of music at Benedictine College, said the college has four of Ihasz's works, including a realistic, life-size sculpture of St. Benedict in his robes and a raven at his feet.

"They are simply beautifully executed," Schultz said of Ihasz' works. "All of them are in wood and very detailed. They are inspirational without being maudlin."

Ihasz, born and raised in Hungary, became fascinated with art as a child and loved making clay models at school.

"I always wanted to be a famous artist," he said. "I went from my hometown to a woodcarving studio in Budapest. I went one-half day to the studio and one-half day to art school."

Nazi 'training'

And then the Germans came.

Ihasz said Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944. Late in the fall, he and other youths, ages 12 to 17, suddenly were rounded up by Nazi troops and transported on railway cars to Germany for "training."

"We had just the clothes on our backs," he said. "We were just a bunch of scared kids."

Ihasz said the teenagers never found out what sort of training they were to undergo. They were not issued rifles. They were not trained to fight in combat.

"We were taken to Poland after a couple of months," he said. In early 1945, the Germans retreated, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves.

"We heard the Russians were coming so we started to walk from Poland in a semicircle to Austria," he said.

When they arrived in Austria, they encountered American troops and were put in a detention camp for 18 months.

After his release, Ihasz said he worked as a "go-fer" for a while at an American Red Cross station. A soldier took an interest in his carvings and helped set up an area in a corner where he could carve and sell his work.

Ihasz said he didn't want to go back to Hungary, which was occupied by Russian troops. So about a year later, he and one of his friends, who was a painter, decided to open an artist's shop in Augsburg, Germany.

Immigration to U.S.

By 1949, he had decided to emigrate to the United States and began looking for an American group that sponsored displaced individuals and families. He saw St. Benedict's College, now known as Benedictine College, on a list at the immigration office.

"Since I was a Catholic, I thought it was a good place to start," he said, adding that he later learned it was the 1949-50 student body that sponsored his trip to the United States. Ihasz arrived in Atchison on June 13, 1951. He was 24 years old.

He was provided room and board at St. Benedict's abbey and given a job at the university's carpentry shop, where he started making carvings of saints and crucifixes.

Terrible accident

A year later, Ihasz lost four fingers on his right hand in a shop accident involving a wood planer. His fingers were severed right above his knuckles.

"It took 1 1/2 years to get the stubs working," he said, explaining how he continuously gripped a ball between his thumb and palm to strengthen his hand's muscles.

Ihasz, who is right-handed, was able to restore his ability to write, draw sketches and carve using that hand. He eventually set up a carving business in a small space at an Atchison store.

One day, an engineer at Locomotive Finished Materials came to see him. He had pictures of the grandchildren of the foundry's owner, H.E. Muchnic, and wanted to know whether he could carve their portraits. Ihasz assured the engineer he could.

The portraits were given to Muchnic, who was so impressed with the artwork that he visited Ihasz at the store. When Muchnic heard Ihasz's story and how he was struggling to make ends meet, he arranged to get him a job in the pattern shop at the foundry. Ihasz retired in 1989, after 33 1/2 years at the foundry, now known as Atchison Casting, and has since concentrated on his carving.

One of the pieces Ihasz is working on now is a cedar crucifix. He prefers using hardwoods -- hedge recovered from old fence posts, mahogany, black walnut and antique woods from barns.

The crucifix lies among some of his other works: carved ivory pistol grips depicting an American eagle on one side and the raising of the flag at Hiroshima on the other; a statue of St. Joseph; gun stocks with carvings of deer, moose, lions, ducks, geese and pheasants; and a statue of Diana, the mythological huntress.

His most unusual creation? A piece of 10,000-year-old mammoth tusk he received in exchange for doing a carving for a professor at Kansas University. He used the tusk for a crucifix.

Smaller the better

Although he has done several large carvings, Ihasz prefers smaller works, mainly because smaller pieces of wood are easier to find and aren't as expensive. Mahogany costs $4.80 a board foot. Basswood is $3.50 a board foot.

Tools range between $23 and $150 each, so he has made many of his carving instruments or reconditioned those bought at estate or garage sales. "It's not a cheap business to be a woodcarver," he said.

Ihasz said many people didn't understand the time it takes to make his intricate carvings.

"It's not like you go into a store and take it home," he said. "It's a time-consuming project.

"The time involved depends on the style they want. It takes a week to three weeks for the gun stocks. A detailed crucifix takes four to six weeks, but I first have to build the cross itself."

Prices for his gun stocks range from $150 to $400. The cost of his carvings ranges from $250 to $5,000, depending on their size and detail.

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