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posted: 5/20/2014 11:00 AM

Artist Works Inside the Box

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  • "Jeff Baenen's award-winning five tiered box entitled "Vertebrae" will be featured at ArtWauk May 17th."Jeff Baenen

    "Jeff Baenen's award-winning five tiered box entitled "Vertebrae" will be featured at ArtWauk May 17th."Jeff Baenen

Jane Ferry

Some people would take a bad fall as the opportunity to slow down and recuperate, but award-winning artist Jeff Baenen researched and hand carved a multi-level box out of seven feet of black walnut. "While out walking I noticed the beauty of a spine from remains of deer," said Baenen, who had been doing anatomy studies since fracturing his sacrum. "All of this together inspired me to do the five tier box called "Vertebrae"." "Vertebrae" recently took first place in the Open Category and won the overall People's Choice Award at the 2013-2014 Woodworking Show in Milwaukee. The artist will bring this award-winning piece, along with a variety of his other hand-crafted boxes, to Dinosaur Studio Tattoo at 116 S. Genesee Street for the May 17th ArtWauk.

Baenen has been a featured artist at previous ArtWauks. "There is such a feeling of community and appreciation from fellow artists at ArtWauk that I was inspired to design a new box. My "Aspire" boxes where a direct result of being involved with the ArtWauk," said Baenen. Even though he has been involved in exhibits and had other shows, the artist suggests ArtWauk is unique because "…I am able to interact with people in way I just can't when my work is behind glass." The boxes are visual and tactile art and he appreciates knowing his boxes will become a family heirloom. "I take great pride in how I finish the boxes and love for people to touch and hold them … just don't drop them," he added.

Before making boxes Baenen sketched, painted, and did pointillism. "Anything I could do involving creating something. When I purchased my house the creation process turned into a restoration process and I loved it. Working with your hands gives one the greatest sense of accomplishment," he said. He started box making about nine years ago when a coworker and friend asked if he would make a box to hold a 100 year old family bible. "I jumped at the chance and the wheels started turning. I have been hooked ever since." Baenen set a goal for himself to become one of the top box makers in the United States. "Those goals are what keeps me always wanting to learn something new," Baenen said. "The funny thing in box making is that "learning something new" usually means researching some method that was used 100+ years ago."

As he works on his boxes, Baenen writes about the creation process, which usually starts with the story of how it began and where the idea came from. "I have done boxes to celebrate family, love and death. I can honestly say, for me, the most emotional triggering boxes I have created are the urns. To sit down with a family and listen to how much they loved this person, the stories of their life, how they lived, how they loved. To take all that and put it into a box is very moving," he said. One of the urns he created, called "Ashes to Ashes, Sawdust to Sawdust", was for an uncle who shared the same passion toward the art of woodworking and would teach Baenen new methods he just learned. "He had so much to offer me in knowledge, but was taken too early. Knowing his love for woodworking I lined the urn with 220 sandpaper."

Baenen is working on five new boxes for the May ArtWauk. "I'm thrilled to have Jeff return to ArtWauk," said Mark Hoffmann, owner of Dinosaur Studio Tattoo. "His work is unique. People always want to touch his boxes or take them apart. And Jeff is always willing to share the stories behind the boxes and his techniques." Hoffmann, who has a BFA in Illustration, often tattoos clients during ArtWauk. "Like Jeff, I like to have the chance to demonstrate and explain my art to people."

ArtWauk, on third Saturday of every month in downtown Waukegan's Arts & Entertainment District, will be May 17th from 5:00 -- 9:00pm.