Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hooligan to Artisan

Another DIY man and a character like none other.

Published Sept. 15, 2006, in the Keizertimes

John Eley lost five fingers and part of his right thumb in a metal press accident on a Saturday morning in 1962, just three days before he became a professional boxer.

It was 10 days before he got married. In fact, that was the reason he'd taken the job in the machine shop.

"I was working to earn extra money for bridesmaids' dresses," said Eley. "The press repeated on me while I was monkeying with some switches and came down on my hand."

He spent two years recovering from the incident, but during that time his doctor gave him a small box of paints. He was having trouble breaking through the mental blocks that were preventing him from moving what little remained of his right hand's digits. The doctor thought painting might help.

That's how Eley became an artist.

After he regained motion in the hand, he was sent to be evaluated to determine what sort of jobs he might still be able to perform.

"They told me they could teach me how to hold a broom, and I told them where they could stick it," said Eley.

Instead, he found work as a lorry driver and continued working on his painting when he found the time.

"You call them semis in this country," said Eley, who hails from the United Kingdom.

As his motor skills improved, Eley decided he wanted to branch out into other mediums. His sights landed on woodworking and carving.

"I went to the some of the best rocking horse makers in England and told them I would work for free, if they would teach me," said Eley.

Repeatedly he was told, "no."

Eley, not one to back down, found another route. He resorted to collecting books on the craft and learned to do it mostly by looking at the pictures. His dyslexia made reading difficult.

That was how Eley learned woodworking.

He quickly expanded his repertoire from rocking horses to other toys. It was at a toy show that a customer approached him and asked if he knew how to do stained glass work.

Lying through his teeth, Eley answered, "yes."

"The guy told me he would call me on Monday. Over the weekend, I went out and bought more books," he said.

And that's .... well, you get the picture.

Since his humble start at painting to regain use of his hand, Eley has taught himself glass etching, wood burning (aka pyrography), metal sculpture, oil painting, flint knapping, and even steelwork. He combines techniques from each to create the numerous pieces that fill his workshop in Keizer.

He crossed the pond five years ago after losing his first wife, Gladys, to cancer and meeting his new love, Maggie. They met over the Internet.

It was here that he discovered new worlds of art produced by Native Americans and, as he puts it, "took to it like a duck to water."

"Maggie knew some people holding a powwow and we went. While there, a woman named Raven came up to me who had this amazing eagle ring," said Eley.

He asked where he could get one.

"She told me I couldn't. It was a family ring," he said.

As Eley delved deeper into the Native American culture, an opportunity presented itself that would give him the chance to become part of the family.

The woman's son had a flute made from a 200-year-old sequoia tree that broke. Eley was asked to reassemble the flute's five pieces.

His response was a caution:

"I can try, but there was no telling how it will sound."

Shortly thereafter he called Raven and played the flute for her over the phone. She and her son were at Eley's door in less than an hour. Raven gave him her family ring.

In the intervening years, Eley has turned his talents to creating art in the Native American style, including hand-carved knives, flutes, ceremonial pipes adorned with beadwork from Maggie, bows, arrows, walking sticks and just about anything else he decides to tackle.

While he's borrowed their techniques, Eley, 64, has also learned from Native American philosophies.

"It's taught me be to be a better person. Before I met the friends I have now, I was pretty much always thinking about myself, a bit of a hooligan," he said.

When not working on Native American pieces, Eley busies himself with custom glasswork that adorns several local residences and a winery or two.

Surrounded by his works and accomplishments (he is also an accomplished archer and billiard player), it's easy to forget that Eley is considered disabled by many who meet him, something he used to take as a challenge.

But time has mellowed the once fight-driven man.

"Now it's all about my work and teaching other people who are interested in being taught. It's a waste if all the knowledge I've accumulated dies with me," he said.

Despite his many talents, Eley brushes aside praise for the obstacles he's overcome.

"The accident was the best thing that ever happened to me, but there's still a lot more I want to do," said he said.

That is how Eley plans on going out.

"They're going to try to close the lid and I'm going to stick a leg out and tell ‘em I'm not done yet," he said.

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