Ruidoso’s Dynamic Duo by Lucina Sarber
Published in the November 23rd issue of Vivacini! To experience a “real magazine”, read the article in the flipping book version here: Vivacini! 23 November 2012.
Master Ruidoso scrimshaw artist, Paul Wenzel grew up in Hugo, Minnesota outside of the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Mom was the church organist and dad was a police officer in the town of White Bear Lake
but that didn’t stop Paul from growing up as a self-described “trouble-maker” who loved the outdoors.
“My brother and I were always out in nature trapping or pheasant hunting. But I was also a ‘long hair’ artsy type. I basically ran the 10th grade pottery studio and took metal shop, woodworking and photography. I was not so interested in ‘higher’ education so I graduated high school and walked straight into a semi—I would remain ‘married’ to my Peter Bilt for another 18 years!”
Paul began hauling grain into South Dakota and before too long he and a partner had two semi-trucks and four trailers and ICC authority to haul dry freight (like Mickey Mouse sour balls) into Disneyland and
Universal Studios in Los Angeles . . . their company’s name: Happy Rat Trucking.
“One of my partners was a Vietnam vet who was a bartender when I met him and his name was ‘Happy.’ Our friend’s name was Ratsky— so that’s how we came up with Happy Rat Trucking!”
But after a decade of criss-crossing the country in semis, Paul had grown frustrated at not being able to do
his art full-time. That art included scrimshaw, known as “the whaler’s art”– considered the only original American folk art (with the exception of American Indian art). Paul’s focus and talent, however, went beyond just doing scrimshaw to encompass silversmithing, pottery, tanning and quillwork, traditional fur-trade era folk art.
“I wanted a traditional bow but couldn’t figure out how to tiller one and the bows I saw at powwows were decorative. I had met Toby Christopher, owner of a trading post in California called “Warrior’s Legacy,” and Happy and I became really close to Toby and his
wife, we had so much in common with them.
“They were looking for a new place to live, came to Ruidoso, fell in love with it andasked us: ‘You all ready to get out of trucking?’ And sure enough in 1993 the last run we made as Happy Rat Trucking was hauling our stuff into Ruidoso. Happy worked Warrior’s Legacy for Toby here and I helped keep the inventory stocked with my scrimshaw, quillwork, Native American medicine pouches and jewelry.”
Over the years, Paul also worked at the Humane Society and at Classic Bronze in Ruidoso Downs—doing wax and metal work for more than six years. In 2001 he and Toby went to the Blues Festival (held back then at the airport), where he met his future wife, Deborah Bostic-Jones, a Ruidoso graphic designer, teacher and artist.
Today, after 30 years of plying his craft to perfection, Paul is considered a master at etching on fossil ivories, the form the most prized scrimshaw takes. Legal fossil ivories he uses include wooly mammoth, mastodon and walrus that become jewelry, powder horns, knife handles and decorative art. He incorporates his one-of-a-kind fossil ivories in jewelry designs that replicate the style of historical trade silver with turquoise and other semi-precious stones.
Paul’s comprehensive and first-hand knowledge of traditional folk art, history and the region’s wildlife, along with the fact that he really looks like a “mountain man,” makes him a popular speaker at museums, art festivals,
historical re-enactments and schools; he’s also a favorite with painters and photographers having been captured on canvas by many including his wife, Deborah.
Running into Paul and Toby at the Blues Festival in 2001 prompted Deborah to greet him with a simple:
“Oh, I recognize you, your son goes to the same school as mine.”
As their relationship progressed, they realized this was not the only thing they had in common—Deborah had
been born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and was the child of a Presbyterian minister:
“It was like being an army brat, we moved around a lot but our families, both mine and Paul’s, originally hailed from the same area, Iona, Minnesota just outside of Slaten, Minn. That still amazes us . . . that we had that in common and yet didn’t meet out there but rather here in Ruidoso.”
Just like Paul, Deborah knew from a young age where her talents lay:
”I had always loved art from the time I was six or seven. My mother’s first cousin, Don Baker, was real big at Proctor and Gamble as a commercial artist—what graphic designers
where called back then—and I wanted to be like Don.”
Her father was called to minister in the inner city of Kansas City, Mo., so Deborah finished high school at an
experimental school there. Her love of education is inspired by her mother who has two master’s degrees, one
in special education and the other in library sciences.
“My whole family is in the service professions. My second love besides art was psychology and sociology. During the last few months of high school I did work-study at a state mental hospital, and at the age of 18, I was invited to sit on the board there.”
In the end, graphic design and art won out (“I was too sensitive to do psychiatric social work!”), after all according to Deborah, “Kansas City has the highest concentration of graphic designers in the country . . . it’s also
home to Hallmark.” After dating famed jazz guitarist, Pat Matheny for a couple of years,
Deborah ended up in El Paso, Texas teaching at UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso), and
working as a graphic designer.
It would be another guitar player who would capture Deborah’s heart and ultimately bring her here to Ruidoso. Randy Jones played in the Moon Pie Dance Band of El Paso, a country rock band so popular in the region
during the ‘80s and ‘90s—it opened for KISS at one point. Randy’s family had a cabin here
and once Deborah saw this alpine village, her
determination was set:
“During the 10 years I was in El Paso, all I could do was dream about
moving up here and raising my boys in thisenvironment.”
Deborah got her wish. Her sons, Tyler and Cody, are following in their parent’s footsteps, developing into artistic andcreative young men. Today Deborah teaches at three area elementary schools
and concentrates on her painting—some of it described as abstract, “cubo-expressionism.”
Her portraiture, while very realistic, is as evocative as her abstract expressionism. Her brilliant use of color is the result of painted pyrography (also known as “pyroengraving” or woodburning) that allows
the painter to draw on wood and other surfaces, using heated tools.
Once this process is completed, Deborah finishes off the painting in oil or acrylic– the result is an incandescent, gleaming piece of art that belies the fact that she limits her palettes to only half a dozen colors.
Deborah is beloved in Ruidoso and Lincoln County for being a remarkable teacher and not surprisingly, she finds her greatest inspiration from her students; she says teaching art to children fuels her creativity:
“There is not one day when I do not witness extraordinary skill and talent—the
children and I are all engaged in the same magical process.”
So, what does the future hold for these two very talented souls? Deborah in her quiet, inimitable style, smiles sweetly and says,
“we just want to continue doing what we love, continue being very supportive of each other.”
Paul’s good humor will undoubtedly help–with his delightful, self-deprecating sense of humor he blusters dramatically:
“Well, I am not Mr. Laid Back, I’m more Mr. Stressed Out”
. . . and we clearly see the great charm that captured Deborah—if you have any doubt about it, just read what Paul put on his website next to his picture, a quote from Douglas Adams:
“He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher . . . or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.”