CHEYENNE — People around town still don’t seem to understand what Curt Theobald does for a living.
“It’s a big thing, and it’s hard to believe,” Theobald said in a phone conversation this week with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “A lot of people in the community of Pine Bluffs know that ‘Curt works with wood,’ but any more than that, no. It’s hard to describe.
“I made this piece of wood. I glued 700 pieces of wood together, and then I’m going to sell it for $15,000. That doesn’t make sense in the farming and ranching community of Pine Bluffs.”
Rest assured, there are plenty of people who do understand his work. They live all over the world, including Ireland, France, New Zealand and England. But from May 13-April 2, the public will be able to see his work somewhere new: in our nation’s Capitol.
Theobald, a contemporary wood artist living in Pine Bluffs, recently had his 2013 artwork titled “Eye of the Storm” donated to the Smithsonian Institute by private collectors. It will now be featured in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a part of its newest show, “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.”
And that isn’t his only honor. For the opening exhibition, Theobald was one of 12 artists invited to Washington, D.C., to interact with attendees during the showing. Out of more than 170 pieces, he was chosen to represent the medium of woodworking with his sculpture.
“There’s plenty of wood artists that they could have selected from,” he said with a laugh. “Did they put the names on a big spinning board and throw a dart at it?”
It’s a labor-intensive medium, carving and sculpting wood. Theobald spent many years running a cabinet business, putting his skills to practical use, which is probably why neighbors get confused as to what he’s doing in the shop all day.
But during his time running a business, he waited for those six weeks off when he could work on his craft. It was the thing that allowed him to express himself after a life of manual labor.
“My dad, he’s the farmer – our farm just turned into a century farm – and his deal is, if you don’t have three hours of work in by eight in the morning, you’re a slacker,” Theobald said.
Theobald told his dad some years ago that he would be flying to England to teach woodturning.
“His question was, ‘How much does that cost?’ I said, ‘No, dad, they’re paying for me to come.’ It just doesn’t make sense to somebody that used to till the ground.”
He can thank his father for one thing, and that’s instilling in him a work ethic. What’s kept Theobald woodturning is the drive to solve problems and create something new. The moments he realizes he doesn’t know how to do something are often his favorite.
Such is the case with “Eye of the Storm,” an intricate piece of woodworking that gives the top-down illusion of a gyrating cyclone.
From the elevation of Pine Bluffs, he can look out over the prairie at the early morning thunderclouds pluming in the distance. He sees the hues of blue and violet as they build over a vast landscape. The scene reminded him of a hurricane, the eye of the storm that lay idle in the middle.
The circular piece is meant to replace that of a hurricane’s “pinwheel” effect, as Theobald calls it.
He doesn’t know how long it took to complete “Eye of the Storm;” he doesn’t pay much attention to the time. Judging by the intricacies of his Smithsonian item, it took a good deal of patience to perfect.
“I’m no more patient than anyone else waiting at that traffic light to turn green, but everybody has a patience for their passion,” Theobald said. “If your passion is flying kites, you’re gonna go out there every day you can to get the satisfaction of flying that kite.
“When I make my work, patience just goes into the passion,” he added. “It’s absorbing. The world does tend to go away when you’re making a piece of art.”
Beyond that, he isn’t sure what inspires him to design a piece of wood a certain way. He always sketches his work, but as he gets absorbed on the process, different ideas arise, and he takes risks.
Sometimes, before the sun rises, he’ll wake at 2 a.m. with an idea. There’s no rhyme or reason as to when inspiration strikes.
Despite years of labor and practice turning wood and working in other mediums like glasswork, it’s hard for Theobald to take in the fact that his work will remain in one of the most prestigious art museums in the world.
There is one person he wants to thank above everything else, and that’s his wife, Wanda. While he’s working in the shop, she’s keeping things afloat with her day job as a teacher.
“It’s nothing new, but behind every successful artist is a successful spouse,” Theobald said. “It’s not that my wife has boatloads of money – she’s a school teacher, so she gets by – but the success is her believing in me that I can do this.”