Turning over a new leaf with wood has given Saltair’s Steen Hjort a completely different lease on life in his retirement years.
Afer spending a 35-year career as a truck driver, Hjort became self-taught in making beautiful bowls of all sizes and shapes as a way to stay active. Despite the development of his woodworking craft, “I’m a terrible carpenter,” he quipped.
Hjort, now 73, dug way back to his roots to find his untapped artistic potential.
“When we were in junior high school, we all got a chance to use a wood lathe,” he recalled. “We made a bowl.”
Now he makes a lot of bowls as a well-crafted hobby.
“I think it’s magical to see a bowl appear out of a chunk of wood,” Hjort acknowledged. “I just can’t get enough of that. If I don’t sell my bowls there’s not enough room in the house anymore. I just keep making them.”
Hjort made an appearance in Chemainus during mid-August at the invitation of Leena Cameron of Top Hat Antiques & Collectables to do a public display over two days.
He had a variety of beautiful food safe items made from locally sourced reclaimed wood available for purchase.
“We are lucky to have this outstanding talented humble craftsman in our community,” confided Cameron.
That characterization summed up Hjort’s feelings well. “Believe it or not I’m a little shy about that kind of stuff but I’m thinking it would be good to get my name out there,” he conceded.
Hjort was born in Denmark and came to Canada in 1953, spending 13 years in Calgary first before coming to Ladysmith in 1966. He and wife Betty celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary on Aug. 9.
They’ve lived in Saltair since 1993 and “love it there,” he said, on their five acres where “it’s totally private.”
Hjort was on the road a long time over the years as a truck driver.
“My last job I had was with Chevron, hauling gasoline, diesel,” he indicated. “You spend all day thinking about what you’re going to do when you get home and then you’re too tired to do anything.”
Hjort retired 15 years ago when he was 58 so he could concentrate more on other things.
“I was a biker,” he added. “I rode Harleys all my life. I loved riding motorbikes.”
Hjort’s life took an unexpected turn following a normally routine knee replacement procedure that resulted in an infection. After six operations trying to cure it, his leg had to be amputated in a seventh procedure nearly three years ago in January of 2020 in Nanaimo just at the outset of COVID.
Fortunately, he found something to fall back on that was not affected by his amputation.
“Several years ago after I retired, a friend of mine got remarried and her ex-husband had a wood lathe,” noted Hjort. “He gave it to me. I got totally enthused with it. I had so much fun. It became something I love doing.”
He put his craft into practice, utilizing wood from friends and other sources to repurpose into quality bowls.
“Most of it is brought to me,” Hjort said. “I have yet to cut a tree down to make a bowl. It’s all donated.”
Hjort uses a lot of yellow cedar in his work and some alder.
His son-in-law is also an arborist in Victoria who helps with product.
“If he comes across a unique piece of wood, he’ll save it for me,” Hjort said.
It’s all been great for his mindset to find such a productive activity.
“I couldn’t imagine what I could do if I didn’t have that to do,” Hjort confided. “If you lose a leg when you’re my age, you’re really limited in what you can do.”
He’s also made full use of all how-to guides to get the creative juices flowing. “You can learn a lot on YouTube, it’s a wonderful resource,” he added.
Hjort would have loved to do a demonstration at Top Hat, but that wasn’t feasible.
“Making a bowl is the unbelievably messiest thing you can imagine,” he said. “It’s very dusty and dirty.”
Instead, he brought bowls and chatted with people, something else he’s very good at despite some initial shyness.
“I find I sell myself more than my bowls,” Hjort laughed. “I tell the story of where I got a piece of wood, where I made it.
“I think that’s of interest to people. This fellow made it and he got this piece of wood from so and so.”
Hjort has also met people through volunteering at the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery at the old Davis Road School and hopes maybe more will come into the gallery to have a look and meet him at some point.
“It keeps me busy, it’s fun and it’s creative,” he summed up. “You’ve got to have something to be engaged in and make your life worthwhile.”
In the big picture for Hjort, “it really is one day at a time and being grateful for what you have.”