Loren Stene is an artist. It just took him a while to realize it.
Welding was once his trade – bending metal and binding it with beads to transport grain to the farm, where he is busy this year with his 55th annual harvest.
A decade ago, a trip to Mexico lit up the artistic path ahead of him, leading from the last row of soybeans to his intarsia shop. This September marked his 10th anniversary of working with wood.
At 75, Stene keeps her mind sharp and her body active.
During the agricultural off-season, he trains in his home gym to stay in shape during the tougher months of farming. He reads two novels a week. But his work as an artist combines both mind and body, as he wields a circular saw to create wooden images.
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His work is called intarsia, a derivative of a Latin word meaning to insert. In the 1500s, monks worked wooden images to curry favor with the pope.
During his week-long trip to Mexico, at the Minneapolis airport, Stene saw the intarsia on display and was immediately taken with it. Before leaving the United States, he decided he had found his artistic calling.
Stene learned from a book. As he creates from pattern, he uses the world around him to inform his work. In Arizona, where he winters five months a year, his neighbor’s horses show him how to transform the patterns of their muscles into an image.
When looking for wood to use in his art, he finds already existing clouds in the grain.
In one instance, where he cut out a photo of Willie Nelson, he added plywood to the artwork while looking in the mirror, feeling his own jowls to get it right.
Intarsia is a puzzle. Not everything fits. It takes a skilled eye to cut here and carve there until the artist is satisfied with what he has created.
“The photo is an illusion,” Stene said. “You have to make it as real as possible.”
And each image tells a story, becoming through symbolism more than just an image, from the Last Supper to the striped zebra. While showing his gallery, he explains the meaning of each work to wide-eyed children and seasoned connoisseurs. Every now and then he makes a sale.
If he hadn’t become a farmer, Stene thinks he would have been a teacher – at the same time he has, in fact, become an art teacher, as he has four students from all over the country learning the craft of intarsia under his care. .
“Being an artist was the last thing I thought I would end up doing,” Stene said.
However, there was a precedent in his family. His grandfather was a painter and sculptor in his hometown of Lake Mills. Stene also has a granddaughter who is a talented artist.
While Stene grew up on a dairy farm near Lake Mills, her family’s farming heritage dates back 600 years to the fjords of Norway. His son, Andrew, is becoming the next generation in this long line.
“I’m just going to go from being in charge to running the combine for free because I like it,” Stene said. “There’s not a lot of transition, except who’s boss.”
When he was young, Stene’s father retired early and took over the farm. After a semester at Waldorf University, Stene entered the National Guard during the Vietnam War, serving in the United States as an instructor.
“It was the right thing to do at the time,” he said.
Stene recently showed work for Cedar Arts Fest in Osage, which celebrated its second anniversary in September. For 10 years since beginning his intarsia adventure, he exhibited at the Mitchell County Fair.
“People there are so welcoming to artists, myself included,” Stene said of Cedar Arts Fest.
“Loren (Stene) is ready to talk to anyone about his work,” said Pat Mackin, Chairman of the Council of Fine Arts. “I’m impressed with his quality and uniqueness, as well as his enthusiasm for it.”
This year, while Stene was exhibiting his work at the Leeman Education Center, Mitchell County native John Ridgway Walker and his wife — back from Chile — showed up. Walker’s son, Joshua Stuart Walker, is a contemporary abstract painter from the capital Santiago.
The Walkers invited Stene to dinner so they could discuss art. For Stene, it was a barrier crossing, an affirmation of his work.
As they shared ideas, Walker’s wife discovered that Stene’s grandfather might be a cousin – so the same artistic branch that led to Joshua Stuart Walker also led to Stene.
“It’s fun to have your eyes open and not just think about corn and beans,” Stene said.
Stene’s first four students saw his artwork and were intrigued enough—from their homes in Osage, Arizona, South Dakota, and Minnesota—to seek out Stene and ask for his help. After Stene showed them their first models, they were quick to want more.
The first lesson was to make sure their saw blades were square. The journey unfolds in a spiral from this first cut. Order must be maintained as the pieces come together.
Both of Stene’s workshops are in Arizona Horse Country and on the Cedar River in St. Ansgar.
Before intarsia, the most he had worked with wood was building a white cardboard fence. He leaves the construction business to his sons, who took him to Mitchell County when they built homes in the area. In St. Ansgar, he purchased 10 lots and moved into his new home.
“People were so welcoming,” Stene said. “We have extended the hut so that we can live there all year round.” One of those additions was his Iowa studio. His gallery is at Carpenter.
One of his works of art, a zebra and its many stripes, totaling 1,200 pieces of wood, took him 270 hours to complete. After a career of 200 wooden dioramas, Stene prefers the toughest jobs. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth undertaking. After 7,000 total hours of intarsia, Stene ran into every problem imaginable.
The next height he plans to climb is Mount Rushmore.
“I found wood from a log that had been sitting in a river for 100 years,” Stene said. “It has absorbed the sediment into the grain, and it has streaks that look like stone.”
He paid a pretty penny for it at Webster City.
Mount Rushmore will be his winter project for state fairs next summer. Each year, he presents two works of art in fairs, notably in the states of Arizona, Iowa and Minnesota. At each state fair where he exhibited, he received first and second prizes.
As Stene explains, it’s the little details that make the picture good. He works during the day and reads at night. He looks forward to every morning and grew up where one expected to be hardworking – he celebrated his 75th birthday in September running beans. He prides himself on being a scholar. He is still in love with farming, noting that it is more enjoyable since he paid off his farm.
But there is more to come. Whether at work or at play, Stene sees art in all things. It keeps his mind sharp as he heads into the next stage of life.
“Time flies so fast because I always look forward and not back,” Stene said.
Jason W. Selby is the Mitchell Country Press News community editor. He can be reached at 515-971-6217, or by email at [email protected]