Walter Reis: creating by touch

Though never formally trained, Grand Forks resident Walter Reis' carvings are crafted with meticulous detail.

Although he is legally blind now

Crafted with meticulous details, Walter Reis wooden carvings are brought to life with precise accuracy.

From the delicately pointed ears of a rabbit, to the individually strands of hair on a bear’s back, Reis gently chisels and scores for hours on end.

What may surprise most is that Reis is now legally blind.

“I’m completely blind,” affirmed Reis. “Everything is done by touch.”

It was in 1958 when he first picked up a stump of wood and began his first carving. Working at Bralorne Gold Mine provided him the opportunity to begin what he would continue to do for the next 50 years.

“When I came to Canada and I worked at Bralorne, there was a lot of wood over there lying around,” said Reis. “So I picked one up and started carving, just like that.”

What inspired him was seeing an elk carving when he was 13 years old. It had been a gift to his mother from a friend.

“I said, ‘Gee, I sure would like to make one like that’,” he laughed. “And that never went out of my mind.”

His first carving was also an elk, which he later gave to a hospital in Vancouver.

“The second one was a mastodon and I gave that one to the school in Bralorne because they had history about old-age animals,” said Reis, who no longer sells his work. “My third carving was a grizzly bear and horse on one large slab of wood facing each other.”

He explained how he placed two pieces of 4×8’s glued together to carve this piece.

Reis had no favourites amongst his creations, but he loved to carve otters and bears. From beavers and rabbits, to bowls of all shapes and sizes, he enjoyed every aspect of carving.

His carvings, which can now be seen at the Woodworker’s Guild and at the Boundary Museum, is a lesson of learning.

“Nobody told me how or what to do. I had no schooling, no education, nothing like that,” stated Reis. “I had a magazine that had some animals in it and I copied the animals then carved them out.”

“It’s a fabulous collection,” David Bevan, a fellow woodcarver, praised. “The man must have been carving 24 hours a day.”

Bevan pointed the detailed faces of a pair of beavers and the wings of the eagle.

“I think they’re brilliant,” Bevan stated.

His decision to donate all of his carvings to the guild and museum was a result of two separate incidences of having his home ransacked several years ago.

“They broke in and took a bunch of the carvings, especially my otters and special plates,” Reis recalled. “You cannot duplicate them.”

Even as Reis gave thanks to the Lord for providing him patience and ideas, he stated that was also why he didn’t sell anything.

“I gave away everything to the museum so that when people came they could look at it,” he said. “If somebody buys it, they’ll put it away in their house and nobody will see it anymore.”

Each carving, depending on the size and intricacy, would take from a week up to four weeks to create.

“Some of the carvings are made really fine, with little knives and chisels,” he clarified. “A small rabbit would take me up to a week. When I make flowers, one little leaf could take me a full day.”

Despite his lack of sight, he continues to be a self-sufficient man, creating his own jam from his backyard garden as readily as he carves his own sculptures.

“I couldn’t carve any more animals because my eyes couldn’t stay fixed on the eyes or nose or things like that,” explained Reis. “I wanted to make some owls but I couldn’t get them straightened out, so they’re halfway finished.”

Reis’s eyesight started to wane seven years ago, but in the past several years it has gone completely.

As he pours a pot of hot water into a cup of instant coffee, he laughs, “This time all the water went into the cup.”

Though detailed creations are no longer an option for him, he still keeps his hands busy by carving outside.

“I make little canoes,” said Reis. “I can’t see anything so it’s all by touch. Shaping and carving is done by feeling.”

Even though the branches against the skyline are all that’s visible to him, he remains jovial as he whittles away at another small carving.

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