Doren Spillman - Kansas Folk Art
Staci Martin, Apprentice
Whenever the subject of woodcarving comes up in conversation in the state of Kansas the name of Doren Spillman of Hoxie is mentioned. Although there are many fine woodcarvers in the state, Doren is one of the most well respected. He is known for both his realistic carving style and his tendency to produce whimsical full size figures.
Doren was born on a farm in Sheridan County in 1926. In the area where he grew up all of the men seemed to whittle. "I think most of the men used to always have their jackknives out and whittle on a piece of board not really making anything," remembers Doren, "just make a round stick out of a square one." His earliest memories of working with wood are connected with his grandfather. Doren's grandfather was a whittler who made whistles out of box elder limbs for the children.
Like other young boys in western Kansas, Doren carried a pocketknife and learned how to use it by watching the men in his community. Doren smiles when he thinks about that first pocketknife, remembering that it was rather dull. "Parents used to get their kids pocketknives," recalls Doren, "they used to dull it so they wouldn't cut themselves."
Doren did not switch from whittling to woodcarving until he was an adult. He estimates that he has been seriously carving wood for the last 25 years. He first began by observing the work of other woodcarvers. With no formal training in the art form Doren proceeded to experiment on his own. "I made a couple of horses," he says. "I cut them out and glued them together, like three pieces, more or less laminated them and they turned out pretty good."
Doren's woodcarvings are influenced by the region in which he lives. His favorite subjects include horses, cowboys, and Indians. Although he has made the traditional chains and games made by other woodcarvers and whittlers, he is far more interested in carving figures. Doren often uses native wood. At one time he used cottonwood. However, he finds that it usually cracks over time. Today he prefers to use catalpa for larger pieces because it can be cut when wet but tends not to crack. For smaller figures Doren likes to use walnut because he likes the way it finishes. He often trades his woodcarvings for trees. He recently carved a Shriner for a neighbor who has a catalpa grove. "He wanted to know what he owed me," Doren recalls. "I said just let me cut a tree down and he said cut all you want." Doren finishes some of his pieces with a wax finish while others are painted with acrylics.
Approximately 15 years ago Doren and his friends built a log cabin in Doren's back yard. The cabin serves as his workshop. Doren tries to spend several hours in his workshop every week. Since he works full time he spends his evenings and weekends carving wood. Doren values this time.
You've got something to show for your time, in other words, well people like to golf and to fish but when you get home you've got nothing to show for your time. It's economical, I can afford it. And once in a while I'll sell something and that's mad money and I buy tools. When I sell something I feel pretty good about that.—Doren Spillman
Although the sale of his work is not Doren's primary goal, he has sold or traded a good deal of it. He cannot recall every piece he has sold but he knows his work can be found all over the western part of the United States, from California to Missouri.
Doren has shared his traditional skills at festivals and fairs throughout the region. He has participated in such major events as the Kansas Folklife Festival and the Salina River Festival. A year ago he was honored as the "artist of the month" at the Dane Hansen Museum in Logan. Whenever he has entered the Sheridan County Fair, Doren has won a blue ribbon.
Doren has participated as a master artist in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. For two years Staci Martin was his apprentice. Staci was born in the house next door to the Spillmans. At the age of three or four Staci began to visit Doren's workshop to watch him carve. As Doren explains, "She's just like one of my kids." In the beginning Staci wandered next door to watch and to talk.
I guess my first memory was when he came over and asked if he could borrow one of my storybooks, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Back then he was just in his little metal building, he didn't have a cabin. I remember I was always curious why he wanted that book. I went over there and it was amazing how he would take the pictures of my storybook and make it into a figure. It just fascinated me. I just loved to go over there and watch him carve.—Staci Martin
As time went on she began to help Doren by occasionally sweeping out the shop. She even helped him build his current workshop. "At that age I guess I just loved to get into a mess," recalls Staci. "He had mud and straw and I helped him put it between the logs." As time went on it became Staci's job to paint for Doren. Occasionally she would pick up a piece of wood and "chop around on it." On special occasions Doren would take Staci with him to craft shows. On one occasion Doren took Staci along to a class he was teaching in Hays. "I saw how he was teaching them and it just always fascinated me," she remembers. "I had never thought that I was capable of doing what he did." However, that was the day that Staci became a serious student. Her first piece was a set of praying hands that she gave to her grandmother as a gift.
Although the special bond that exists between Doren and Staci was formed long before the apprenticeship program, the apprenticeship proved to be an important and productive experience. Doren recalls, "I felt proud that someone wanted to call me a master artist." The program also gave the participants more incentive both to learn and to teach. "I don't know if I would have been as serious at it," explains Staci. "With this apprenticeship we actually set down times that we could get together. It wasn't just hit or miss. During those two years I came over every Sunday."
Doren was generous not only with his time and knowledge but also with his tools and resources. Because of the apprenticeship Doren recalls, "I gave her some stuff that she wouldn't have been able to buy or probably wouldn't have bought." One of the gifts was the vice that Staci now works with. Doren also gave her his extra tools and was always willing to go down to the river and cut her a piece of wood. Doren was also a patient teacher. When Staci first began to carve faces she had trouble with the eyes.
He was so encouraging. He gave me little hints that he did, he helped me a lot. I know I did one face and he said,"It's just wood!" It was really bad so he had me chop it off and make another one so the head was this thin when I got done, but it looked a lot better.—Staci Martin
During the apprenticeship Doren made Staci a cedar chest. She had no idea he was making the chest for her until he asked her to carve it. Working together they carved an eagle on the top of the chest. It is a piece that Staci will always treasure. It was also during the apprenticeship that Doren made Staci a special high school graduation present. He knew she would be going off to college so he made her a special locked box in which to keep her woodcarving tools.
Staci has even sold a few of her carvings. During the hometown centennial celebration Doren convinced Staci to show her work alongside his. At first Staci was afraid to display her carvings, but Doren was very proud of her progress and overcame her objections. It was much to Staci's surprise when a man came along and expressed interest in her work. Staci remembers, "I was kind of excited because I never realized my work was something that someone else would want or be interested in. I just do it for myself."
Both Doren and Staci gained a great deal from the apprenticeship. Staci has made a lifetime commitment to the art of woodcarving. Although she is very busy now with other activities, her mind is always thinking of new pieces she will care in the future. "I think it's something that will stay with me forever," she says. Doren, on the other hand, feels good that he has made an impact upon Staci's life. He remarks, "It just gave me a good feeling that somewhere after I'm gone, she'll say he taught me how to carve and she'll remember me."
From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989
Entry: Spillman, Doren - Kansas Folk Art
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2011
Date Modified: May 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.