Works of art from wood, castoff materials win top honors
The laundry basket in the main bathroom is a multi-color casino slot machine. The living room CD cabinet is an old-fashioned, bright red-and-white Coca-Cola dispenser. A wall lamp was once a gas pump.
Enter Willem van der Heyden’s Chino Valley home and you will be surrounded by unusual works of art, a virtual museum of recyclable wood, metal, fabric, even Styrofoam and old brass plumbing fixtures.
A U.S. Vietnam Navy veteran turned steel-mill electrician has over the past few decades become an award-winning wood, metal and Styrofoam sculptor and painter whose art is made from scraps he finds at junk yards, garage sales and lumber yards. His genius is in taking odd parts, including discarded band and orchestra instruments, and breathing new life into what is jaw-dropping wall art and furniture.
The self-avowed macho man who sails, hunts, fishes and wields bow saws and sanders with aplomb etched a newborn infant into the center of one of his mixed collage-style wood hangings. On the wall of his bedroom, with his all hand-crafted wood furniture painted a muted red with inlaid flowers and vines, is a carving with the Christian fish symbol and Jesus with his crown of thorns embossed into the base.
With humility, van der Hayden describes his late-in-life therapeutic hobby as “utilitarian art.”
One of eight children born to Depression-era parents in Holland, van der Heyden said his family had no money for music or art lessons. New shoes were a treasure.
The almost 70-year-old came to the United States in 1957. His family started out in Ohio and then moved to Virginia and on to Erie, Pennsylvania, his parents always seeking the next best opportunity.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy right out of high school, not yet an American citizen. He did one tour in Vietnam as part of a mobile river force.
After his discharge in 1969, he accepted a job in a Pennsylvania steel mill. Because electricians earned seven cents more than a plumber apprentice, the then-father of the first of his two daughters, Alicia and Janelle – he now also has seven grandchildren aged 22 to 8 – trained as an electrician. It was his career until retirement at age 62.
Busy making a life for his family, van der Heyden didn’t have much time for other hobbies. As an empty nester, though, he started to explore the more creative side of his personality.
Always handy, van der Heyden found his gift in shaping wood, metals and other materials into intricate wall hangings. He could not afford exotic tools and woods, so he instead collected scraps and welded them together into displays he found appealed not only to his eye but to that of others. He never considered himself a commercial artist, and still does not, though he has sold some of his handmade furniture. He did one large commission for an Ohio symphony hall, one of his musical instrument-inspired pieces, “Sonatina,” which stands 12 feet tall and is six-feet wide.
Most of his art, though, he either trades with other artists or gives as gifts to friends and family.
In October, van der Heyden won his most prestigious honor with his wood, musical instrument collage he titled, “Calliope.” The piece won him first place in the woodworking division at the National Veterans Administration Creative Arts Festival held in Jackson, Mississippi; he was selected after first winning first place at the annual Creative Arts Festival held at the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Prescott.
In this year’s festival that concluded on Friday, van der Heyden won second-place prizes for another musical instrument wood craft as well as a three-dimensional Styrofoam color burst of planets he conceived after hearing a poem about the “Big Bang.” He also submitted one of his first paintings, a night sky landscape of Jerome.
“It’s phenomenal work,” said an appreciative VA staff member Darryl Silvius.
The VA Recreation Therapist said van der Heyden is “full of creativity, and a cool guy.”
Asked how he comes up with ideas, van der Heyden said it is a “never ending process.” He is constantly making mental notes of what might become his next artistic endeavor.
Like someone reading Braille, van der Heyden said he feels his way through his art, the journey more critical than what is almost always an unexpected destination.
And what he sees may not be what someone else sees.
He cites a verse from “Hamlet” as his personal motto: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”