Out of the Woodwork

11th September 2015

Nestled along a mountain road just outside Evergreen, dark clouds are moving in overhead. I make my way through the winding road and up a steep driveway just in time for the rain to settle. An eager Colorado “dude” with grey sunglasses greets me with a Border Collie by his side. He introduces himself, “Roper, call me Roper, there’s too many Michaels in the world.” 

Roper is one of the many entrepreneurial/artist success stories that people who come to Colorado hope to emulate. If you live here, the story is familiar. Stuck in the daily grind of the 9-5 world, a person seeks a better life. But each story has it’s own nuances, even if the broad strokes may be familiar. 

After his wife graduated from school in 2011, Roper, working a construction job, decided he’d like to go back to school to find a more fulfilling career path and carpentry and wood working was a natural passion. At Red Rocks, he enrolled in the Fine Woodworking program, and eventually found his way to woodturning. 

Woodturning is a practice that involves placing a piece of wood on a lathe, which rotates the workpiece along a horizontal axis. To create an object that is symmetrical, different operations are performed on the wood including cutting, sanding, or drilling. Typically woodturning is used to create legs for chairs and tables, but the art form of woodturning was pioneered in the 1950s by Bob Stocktail and Rudy Ashetik.

Roper does both commercial projects in addition to creating his own art, a balance he says he has had to strike, which can make life feel a little chaotic. He keeps a journal next to his bed, and will get ideas and inspiration in the middle of the night. These late-night ideas often lead him down into the studio to work immediately on a project. “An art project will derail me for a couple of days.  I will just get consumed in creating it,” he says. 

But it’s the practical aspects of life - after all, he’s a father and has a mortgage – that usually pull him back to the real world. “You can’t rush things, people can always tell when something has been rushed,” he explains. But I wonder, how do you keep a cool head even when you know you have bills to pay and mouths to feed? “I think Jack Johnson said it best, ‘You move like a jellyfish…you go with the flow. You don’t stop.”  

The medium of wood spoke to Roper, who says his works of art must be touched in order to be fully appreciated. He exhibits his works at festivals around Colorado regularly, and some galleries, although he says he has to fight against the grain a bit among galleries who typically don’t value woodturning as much as other fine arts forms like painting and metal sculpture.

Being an artist is hit or miss, Roper explains. Some months you don’t sell anything, others you can make quite a bit of money. But for Roper there is a passion behind his work that transcends success. “The last thing a piece of wood should be used for is heating someone’s home,” he explains. All of the wood he uses is recycled. 

He has displayed his work in fine woodworking magazines and got recognition in college when he won the title of Collegiate Wood Turner of the year. Although Roper says he is very advanced at his craft, he says he always takes opportunities to continue to learn. “Whenever I decide to try a new technique, I am a beginner again. I’m never going to know it all.” And when other experienced wood turners, like Julio Marco Longo from Australia and Glen Lucas from Ireland, have passed through town he explains how valuable it is to have the opportunity to talk and learn from them too. 

As people in Colorado and all over the country are drawn towards more fulfilling life paths, the road to artistry and entrepreneurship has become quite alluring. Roper explains, “Yes, I am a happier person. But this is hard work, too. I just can’t tell the voice in my head to be quiet though, so this is just what I have to do.”  

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