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Kent Forrester

January, 2012

Drive to Create

Kent Forrester has created things out of wood for most of his adult life. “It doesn’t make much difference what I make,” he said. “I have an obsession.” Kent’s designed furniture, toys, sculptures, clocks, and even such obscure Renaissance instruments as the krumhorn. Nowadays, he makes puzzles. These have the advantage of being small, labor intensive and relatively easy to sell. All important attributes when you can’t stop making things and your house is already full.

Earlier Interests

Before Compton, California developed its reputation for being tough, it was a kids’ paradise. “Back then, it was great,” Kent said of his hometown. “I hung around the bowling alley, was out all night, bicycled all over the place.” He always liked to draw but had no interest in school. Kent’s grade point average was abysmal, his bowling average high. He managed to finish high school and begin a commercial art program at Compton Junior College. Convinced he wasn’t good enough, he dropped out. “I was drifting, doing nothing, doing very badly,” he said. “Mom was terribly disappointed in me.” Then the army drafted him, and turned his life around.

Art Awakening

Unlike most former soldiers, ask Kent about his time in the military and he recalls works of art. Kent was stationed in Germany, where he made an influential friend. Fellow soldier Benjamin Dubinsky came from San Francisco, where he had grown up in a home full of books, art, and high culture.  On leave, the two soldiers visited Florence, Rome, and Paris. “Ben opened up a world of art and literature to me,” Kent said. “I thought, this is a world I’d like to be in.” Kent’s father had warned his son not to follow in his footsteps by working in the oil fields. The world of art and literature looked more promising.

Teaching Career

It was Benjamin who suggested that Kent go to college after his stint in the army. Kent chose the University of Oregon because he’d been offered a job tending the automatic pin setters and running the desk at the university bowling alley. He got a B.A. in English and education, married his wife Marie and found a teaching job. “I taught for a year,” Kent said. “The farther I got into it, the more I thought I can go on, I can do the next thing.” So he returned to school for an MA in linguistics. The University of Maine hired him next, telling him he needed to get a PhD if he wanted to stay. Kent decided the PhD was a good idea, but staying in Maine wasn’t, as it was much too cold. He and Marie moved to Utah where he got his PhD. Then he began his 30-year career at Murray State University in Western Kentucky. He specialized in 18th century British literature and wrote four rhetoric books.

But one of the highlights of moving to Kentucky was he and Marie finally had a house of their own where he could set up a woodworking workshop. He began selling his work, including at Berea College’s prestigious craft fair. Woodworking balanced his teaching. “One is strictly the life of the mind,” he said. “It was nice to come home to the woodwork.” He still enjoys indulging the loner side of his personality. “I like to go out in my workshop and just hang around.”

At Home in Oregon

Kent and Marie always planned to return to Oregon. When he retired in the late ‘90s, they moved back. Kent left most of his tools in Kentucky. Now he has a smaller workshop where he creates his art puzzles from exotic and fancy woods, such as mahogany, cocobolo, maple burl, walnut and wavy maple.

Kent hand saws and hand paints his intricate puzzle pieces. He’s developed a repertoire of more than 100 different puzzles that take anywhere from two hours to four days to create. Many are one of a kind. If a puzzle sells well, he makes more of the same design. Some of his puzzles are based on famous works of art, such as Picasso’s Guernica, old Japanese woodblock prints and several Escher paintings. Kent specializes in subtleties – puzzles within puzzles, hidden elements and unusually shaped pieces. His “Evolution” is a puzzle in four layers. The simple trilobite graces the Paleozoic layer, with layers working their way through the Triassic tyrannosaurus and a Lascaux-style horse before culminating in a top ape layer. People often wonder if this puzzle designer likes doing puzzles. “No, not at all. Occasionally I’ll spill a puzzle. Then I’ll have to put it together. Otherwise I don’t.”

See Kent’s Puzzles

People also frequently ask Kent where he gets his ideas. In a word: insomnia. “I lie in bed at night. I think, now what can I make tomorrow that would be fun to make, fun for people to look at, and might sell.” Kent likes to show at First Thursday because it’s a prime spot for people watching. He enjoys the casual atmosphere and appreciates the low cost of renting a space. He also offers puzzles for sale on his website. “If I were younger and more ambitious, I’d push my puzzles more,” he said. “But I have no ambition anymore. Ambition stopped with retirement.” Since then, Kent has been content to spend time in his workshop and write an article or two for Fine Woodworking magazine. His wife is a quilter, so she understands his need to create. Both enjoy pursuing their time-honored art forms and adding more beauty to the world.

Visit Kent’s website at http://artpuzzles.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/hello-world

Teresa Bergen writes about health, travel, and the arts, and is the author of Vegetarian Asia: A Travel Guide. Find out more about Teresa at www.teresabergen.com