Learning the craft: New mentor program allows artisans to pass skills on to emerging artists

Doug Tollefson pulls a glowing red piece of steel from a forge and brings it over to a press. He pushes a pedal and the machine pounds down on the steel, chipping pieces of it away as he moves it back and forth with a pair of iron tongs. After he...

Doug Tollefson pulls a glowing red piece of steel from a forge and brings it over to a press.

He pushes a pedal and the machine pounds down on the steel, chipping pieces of it away as he moves it back and forth with a pair of iron tongs.

After he has pounded it to the desired thickness and length, Tollefson heats it again and then places in on an anvil and hammers a curve on one end.

It's the beginning of a knife's blade.

Tollefson, a farrier for most of his working life, has made knives this way for 15 years. He used to sell them at shows and still makes them for customers. But he admits he'd give them away if he didn't sell them.


"It's just fun," he said.

Tollefson works from a shop near his house in rural Hawick. In a case near his work table are hunting knives and daggers he has created. Each blade has a different shape and handle. He makes the handles from exotic woods, antlers and ivory, depending on the request.

He also makes swords and other decorative blades.

The blacksmithing work involved in his job of fitting shoes for horses made knife-making a natural fit, he said. He made his first knife in the 1960s, but didn't start knife-making as a hobby until 15 years ago.

"It fit right in because it was still forging," he said.

Tollefson said he would like to pass on his skills to others interested in learning the craft because there are few blacksmiths left.

Tollefson is one of about nine area artists and craftspeople who will be mentors in a new program through the Willmar Area Arts Council. The council is beginning a program that will connect people skilled in an art or craft with people who want to learn it.

Glenn Joplin, who runs a pottery workshop in New London, suggested the idea to the Arts Council. While learning how to do pottery, a New London potter became his mentor for 2Β½ years. The one-on-one instruction was useful, he said.


Joplin decided to suggest a mentorship program because he would get calls from people wanting to learn about different forms of art, but there weren't enough people interested in the same thing to do a class on it at his workshop.

"Wouldn't it be neat if we could put together somebody who's interested in teaching and someone who's interested in a concept," Joplin said.

The Willmar Area Arts Council sent letters to artists in the area to gauge interest in the program. People with various skills replied, Joplin said.

People can choose from a range of art and craft skills through the mentorship program -- from painting and pottery to furniture building, crocheting and DVD animation.

"There's so many things that people do in the area," he said.

Kim Wendlandt of rural New London will teach a form of mixed media art, which she calls assemblage.

In her work, she takes trinkets, old jewelry and fabric to create forms, such as angels and people. Assemblage appeals to people who want to do artwork but don't have strong drawing abilities, she said.

"I think people are surprised what instant gratification there is," she said.


Assemblage is also a personal art form because people can use items that have significance in their work, she said.

Wendlandt herself dabbles in several media, such as painting, beading and papermaking. She recently started making purses using the covers of old books.

Wendlandt, who majored in human ecology and applied design at the University of Minnesota, has taught papermaking and book design classes over the years through community education programs and at Ridgewater College. She said she enjoys teaching and said it helps her come up with new ideas for her work as well.

"Anything we can do to strengthen our growing arts community is good," she said.

People high school age and older who are interested in learning or improving on a certain medium or craft can call the Willmar Area Arts Council at (320) 231-8560 or e-mail them at to participate in the program. Glenn Joplin can be reached at (320) 354-2048.

The mentor will determine the fee, location and the length of the mentorship.

Mentorship options:

Acrylic painting



Cartooning and DVD animation




Hand-built pottery


Mixed media and/or assemblage



Rustic furniture using willow or cedar


Sketch booking

Watercolor painting

Wheel-thrown pottery

Source: Glenn Joplin

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