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CNY Gift Guide

Joy. That’s what the artists interviewed for this article on holiday gifts express in their words, and even more importantly, in their creations.

”My art is a celebration of life and of our connections and our self-expression,” says Peter Michel about the bright, multicolored sculptures he designs. “And it’s supposed to be a little playful and fun.”

Nancy Townsend of Oswego puts color together with warmth to make comfortable, soft and cold-resistant fleece outerwear for the kid in all of us.

And Bob Lodder of Trumansburg crafts timeless toys from wood that he hopes will bring out children’s imaginations in play.

As with many artisans, the need to make a living preceded the ability to devote themselves to their craft full time. Michel worked as an architect until he retired about a year ago. Lodder managed a store and sold sports equipment until he realized his wooden toy work was big enough to be a full-time job. Townsend is the caretaker of the Rice Creek Field Station at SUNY Oswego during the week.

Their work is available online, from their homes and in area stores. Eureka Crafts in downtown Syracuse has featured Lodder’s wooden vehicles and animals for more than 15 years.


The Sculptor

Peter Michel’s artistic impulses date back to kindergarten. The Clinton resident recalls looking up to the first graders because they did such neat art projects. He couldn’t wait to join them. Later, in high school, a cartoon class offered for adults sent him in that direction. But he found his calling in a sculpture class in the art program at Oberlin College in Ohio.

His first public sculpture was a 22-foot-tall totem pole he was asked to create by The Hunger Project in Houston, with which he and his wife were affiliated. During the intermission of a daylong event, 116 children painted the totem pole, and its colorful coat was born.

Years later, while working as an architect, Michel learned to draw designs using computer programs. He then located a few companies that would cut the metal or wood needed to make his drawings come to life as sculpture. He paints the pieces or has them power-coated by another company and then helps assemble them on site. He also makes smaller, tabletop pieces expressing his themes of relationships and self-expression.

For at least the past decade he has cut his sculptures down to size. He’s had photos of the sculptures reproduced as cards and as magnets. For example, the wooden sculpture “Think Peace” consists of adults and children holding hands, encircling part of the globe. “Think Peace” cards (a box of six for $10) and magnets (one for $6, 10 for $50) are available via his Web site, www.petermichel.com. Look for a link to note cards. His Web site also features photos of his life-size sculptures, many of which now stand in sculpture gardens around the country.

“When people say (my work) kind of makes them happy or smile, that’s what I’m after,” he says.


The Fleece Hat Lady

When Nancy Townsend enters the local sewing store, she dons a pseudonym: The Fleece Hat Lady. Sporting a well-aged hat of her own, she buys bolts and bolts of colorful fleece fabric to use in the annual production of her cold-weather creations, which include in addition to hats, “boa-type” scarves, baby hats, neck warmers, and even corn-filled hot or cold pillows.

Her interest in fleece began about 10 years ago when her now 17-year-old daughter learned how to cut out and stitch together a fleece hat in her 4-H club. “I can do that,” Townsend told herself. And she gave it a try. In 1999 she officially started Nancy’s Novelties.

Now fleece has taken over her house. Asked if she sews in a sewing room, Townsend laughs. “There are usually three sewing machines set up on my kitchen table,” she says. She uses one machine for each of her main stitches. When a hat with fringe is completed, it goes to her husband, Doug, who ties the knots in the fringe while watching TV in the family room. Even Townsend’s sister gets in on the act. She sews the more complicated fleece-lined mittens that sell for $10.

This past year the Townsends added on a room to their Scriba home. Townsend needed space large enough to hold the 12-foot-long table she built to hold queen-size quilts. In her off-season, Townsend returns to quilting, her first sewing love. “I started the fleece business just to make enough to cover my quilting expenses,” she explains. She recently finished a quilt depicting scenes along the Underground Railroad. (She donated it to the Oswego Public Library where it will be raffled off.)

Because her fleece items last so long, she tries to add new products each fall. This year she’s offering baby hats for $3 and has made separate fleece bags to hold her corn-filled pillows for $8 each. The inside colorful fabric bag, which contains cow cornfeed, can be removed so the fleece can be washed. She displays 5-foot-by-5-foot fleece blankets in a pink ribbon pattern for $30 with matching cushy pillows for $13. In addition to sports-patterned fabric, she has many of her products in the purple hat pattern. Most of her items are stitched around the edges to add durability and help maintain their shape.

At 51, Townsend has worked 31 years for the state of New York. After graduating from SUNY Plattsburgh with a degree in environmental science, she joined the state work force. She plans to continue selling on eBay (under Fleece Hat Lady), by e-mail (ntownsend1hotmail.com), and at craft fairs and sports tournaments when she retires. That’ll give her a little more time for her quilting. On Jan. 26, The Fleece Hat Lady will be set up to help keep folks warm at Winterfest in Skaneateles Community Center, 97 State St., Skaneateles.

wooden toys

The Toy Man

For Bob Lodder, inspiration struck when he was walking through a craft fair more than 20 years ago. Looking at a wooden car, he told his wife that he could make the same. “Then do it,” she suggested. Lodder did and children of all ages responded. After selling his handmade wooden toys part time for several years, he realized the orders from shops around the country were enough to allow him to quit his full-time job.

He likes building toys for children that spur their imaginations and that will still be around when the children become parents.

What he calls “the service series” is especially popular. It features vehicles kids may see around town or in the air: helicopter, train, school bus, car and more. The colorful “peg people” can be used from toy to toy. He takes care to make sure the peg people are too big to be swallowed, and he only uses safe paint that contains no lead or other harmful chemicals. Much of his wood is not even varnished. If any parts start to wear, a little rub with some sandpaper can make them good as new.

He also gets a kick out of his pull-toys. The dog and rolling rattle can delight a child over and over, he says.

His toys (with prices starting at about $13) are available in 80 shops around the United States, including Eureka Crafts, 210 Walton St., in Syracuse. People in his small town of Trumansburg, north of Ithaca, just call him up when they want a toy, he says, and then they drop on by. He also takes orders through his e-mail address: tburgtoysfltg.net.

Lodder’s creativity also extends to book writing. He published his first book, Fish Creek: A Western Adventure, about his time as a firefighter out West. It is available through booksellers online or by e-mailing Lodder. He is now at work on an autobiography about growing up in Baldwinsville during World War II.

Just like his toys, Lodder hopes the history and stories of that time period will last as Central New York continues to grow and change.

Painted Glass & More

When Anne Kowalczyk created a warm and cozy space in her bed and breakfast, MoonStruck Manor, just west of Syracuse near Fairmount, she didn’t stop there. Kowalczyk turned a back room, two anterooms, and another space just above into MoonStruck Gifts. The shop offers a cozy, inviting space that enchants gift hunters.

Kowalczyk has filled the rooms with dangling fairies dressed in Christmas garb, sparkling wall signs and plaques, squishy-soft stuffed animals, jewelry, scarves, cocktail dresses, purses, ornaments and more. “The big thing here is whimsy,” Kowalczyk says.

The gift shop entry is located inside an ivy-framed patio at the back of the Federal-style house located at 3009 W. Genesee St. A note on the door warns visitors that the longhaired cat may enter the gift shop, but cell-phone conversation may not; it is a “stress-free zone.”

In addition to unusual gift items, Kowalczyk offers wine glasses she paints by hand. Some of this year’s designs include the phrases Fa La La, Bah Humbug, and Believe. Most sell for $16 each. Some are displayed on furniture she also paints and decorates for sale.

Just like the bed and breakfast, MoonStruck Gifts is designed to offer inspiration—in addition to a fun shopping trip. Holiday hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Check out the bed and breakfast and the gift shop at www.moon struckmanor.com.

Wooden Toy Makers

Gunther Keil hopes all those who play with or simply treasure his handmade arks, featuring Noah and at least 24 animals, will recognize the need to take care of all of our planet, not just its people.

“If I were to build an ark, I certainly would pack up some plants, too,” Keil says of our modern-day predicament with climate change. “The ark is an ecological thing,” he explains. “I want to get the idea across that the wood and the vegetation on our Earth are just as important as the animals.”

With each Noah’s ark sold by Wild Apples (4487 Rabbit Run Road, Trumansburg; (866) 291-2882), Keil includes a letter detailing the type of wood—usually 14 kinds—used to craft each animal. He harvests the black cherry wood from trees on his own land in Trumansburg. Nearly 70 percent of the orders from his Web site, www.wildapples.com, are for the arks, he notes. But his two nativity sets ($66 and $138) are popular at this time of year, too. Arks—with 60 animals, Noah, his wife, and a gangplank—start at $110. Pull toys include a wooden articulated dragon toy for $24.75 and a simple horse for $12.75.

A native of Germany, Keil has been handcrafting wooden toys for more than 30 years. They are available in some local stores as well, such as Eureka Crafts in Armory Square. Speaking of the Earth’s living creatures, Keil makes a special line of “animal habitats.” For $66 each, a 9-inch-tall elephant, brontosaurus, cat or dog house comes filled with 14 little friends and bits of nature, enough for a child to create a special world.

Handmade wooden toys also are crafted in the Geddes home of Joe and Sandy Buchmann. Although the family business, Buchmann’s Toymaker Shop (110 Spruce Tree Lane; 488-6741), is based in the Syracuse area, most of their toys are sold in specialty shops around the country or via their Web site, www.buchmannstoymaker shop.com.

The Buchmanns have been creating wooden toys for more than 30 years now. They feature doll houses (starting at $99) and doll furniture that can even be matched to child-size furniture available by custom order.

Like the other wooden toymakers featured here, the Buchmanns also strive to make toys that will last more than one generation.

Photographs by Michael Davis

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York