Mennonite Heritage Museum kicks off spring with local artists on exhibition

GOESSEL – The Mennonite Heritage Museum will be celebrating the beginning of its spring hours on March 2 with an exhibition of quilting and carving art by local couple Martha and Clarence Klassen. 

Museum Director Fern Bartel has made a point to bring in local artists and new exhibitions to the museum. 

“I think this is tremendous. Too many times I hear, ‘Oh, I’ve been to the museum.’ and so it’s awesome to have this coming up. There are items people have not seen, and they feature local people, which I think is just the best thing ever,” Bartel said. 

Clarence’s work, which includes many life-size painted wood carvings of birds, can be found throughout the museum. Martha’s quilt work is incorporated into the museum’s exhibitions as wall hangings and quilts on display. 

Clarence has been carving for just 10 years, picking up the hobby from an uncle who is an enthusiast. Martha began quilting in the early 1990s, after seeing the work of her friends. By 1993, she had bought her own quilting machine. Clarence, after a three-day carving class, honed in on birds as a speciality. 

“It’s something to do. I try to make things as realistic as I can. I’ve got a bird book that tells me how long birds are, and I go by that and make patterns,” said Clarence. 

When it comes to patterns, Martha said she favors making nine patch quilts. 

“I can take five of one color, four of another and make another with two fabrics. I try not to have any two alike in a quilt so there’s more variety,” she said. 

Martha added, she enjoys working with a variety of fabrics with a notable exception, “I don’t like the cartoon fabrics; I think they’re a waste of time.” 

Many of Clarence’s creations begin as blocks of “mid-grade construction lumber” that are then patterned, cut, wood burned for details and then painted. 

“I get to about as life-size as I can, and start by cutting with a bandsaw then from there start shaping it. I guess I do power carving since I have a dremel tool,” he said. 

Larger birds require more pieces and wood glue. His current project in progress is a life-size whooping crane. 

Another secret Clarence shared was using ball bearings to create eyes for his smaller life-size birds. 

Martha also has projects in the works, piecing, sewing and quilting material from Mennonite Central Committee to create quilts for the organization. 

“It’s seeing what I can make, especially now that I’m getting fabric from MCC. You never know what you’re going to find. I try to make something out of what there is,” she said. 

Unlike many quilters, Martha said she has kept her personal stash of fabric to a minimum. However, she has found a fast and effective way to make quilts, particularly 60×80 quilts for MCC. 

“I’ll go through and I’ll make 149 patches and divide them into how many quilts it will be. If I have the nine patches made and the sashing strips, I can put the top together in half a day, if I have all the pieces cut and ready,” she said. 

Clarence said some of his birds, however, can take up to 20 hours to craft and paint. 

“We’re running out of room for my carvings,” he said. Martha noted their walls are looking particularly bare as the museum has most of Clarence’s birds on loan. 

Bartel said this was the fifth art show featuring local artists at the museum. In the past she has collaborated with Goessel High to feature showcase students’ work. However, in making adjustments due to COVID-19, Bartel has reached out to the wider community

“There’s so much talent in our town, and I want to highlight it,” she said. 

Bartel said the museum uniquely preserves local history and draws a wide-ranging audience. 

“Come in again and see what we have and how it’s expanded. I have come up with other ideas to put items here or there, to enhance the museum and tell the community’s story better,’ said Bartel.