Homey setting: Keith Ruble hews a bowl using a small set of hand tools and a sassafras stump that serves as the base for his work, as his wife, Susan watches. Ruble does most of his hewing in the living room of their Prairie Creek home. Tribune-Star/Mark Bennett
Homey setting: Keith Ruble hews a bowl using a small set of hand tools and a sassafras stump that serves as the base for his work, as his wife, Susan watches. Ruble does most of his hewing in the living room of their Prairie Creek home. Tribune-Star/Mark Bennett
Decades ago, teachers in the small southeastern Indiana town of Aurora sensed young Keith Ruble’s future. “My teachers said, ‘Your mind’s outside,’” Ruble recalled last week. They were prophetic.

Ruble got his education in Aurora, then earned bachelor’s and masters degrees in park-and-recreation management at Indiana State University, became the Vigo County parks superintendent at age 26, added outdoors amenities like Pioneer Village at Fowler Park and maple syrup manufacturing at Prairie Creek Park, developed his own side businesses in aquatic management and forestry, retired as parks superintendent after 39 years in 2012, and saw the county name a new park in his honor in 2013.

So, yes, his mind tends to be outside.

One of the many skills Ruble has acquired as an outdoorsman is the rare art of hand hewing wooden bowls. He learned it from master bowl-maker Bill Day in the 1970s, who was demonstrating the craft the Indiana State Fair. More than 40 years later, Ruble also is a master of hand-hewn bowl-making. His creations, and those of four other craftsmen, were featured in an exhibit in the Herman B Wells Library at Indiana University from August through last Sunday. Nearly half of the exhibit consisted of Ruble’s bowls, with others crafted by fellow Vigo Countians Blaine Berry and Dale Findley, Glen Summers of Parke County and Michael Combs of Monroe County.

“They really are just true works of art,” said Jon Kay, curator of the exhibit and associate professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IU.

Kay also serves as director of Traditional Arts Indiana at the university, a center that promotes a variety of arts through collaborations with Indiana artists and arts organizations. Kay also has spent 20 years studying the benefits of creative practices on older adults.

The bowl-makers involved in this fall’s IU “Revival of Bowl Hewing in Indiana” exhibit fit that demographic. “All of these men are in their 70s and 80s,” Kay said.

Ruble is 75 years old. In a handful of hours, he can turn a slab of rough-cut wood into bowls shaped like creatures of wild, farm animals, leaves or states. He needs just four hand tools, a sassafras stump, a steady aim and patience.

“The more you do it and practice at it, the better you get at it,” Ruble said between swings of his adze, while chipping a piece of cherry wood into a bowl shaped like his home Hoosier state.

And he’s gotten pretty good at it.

“Keith Ruble is really considered a master of this,” Kay said. “He’s taken what he learned from Bill Day and taken it to a new level. His bowls are so artfully done and super thin.”

Ruble’s been hand hewing bowls since meeting Day at the state fair four decades ago. Yet, Ruble emphasizes almost anyone can learn the craft, which he said has become a “lost art.” Most wooden bowls are made on a lathe. Just 25 to 30 Hoosiers currently make hand-hewn bowls, according to Jon Kay at IU.

“Normally, I tell people, ‘If you can hammer a nail, you can hew a bowl,’” Ruble said.

Hammers and nails aren’t among the primary tools Ruble uses to hew bowls, though. An adze resembles a hatchet, but with an arched blade that’s perpendicular to the handle, capable of chipping a bowl from a flat slab of wood and shaping the edges. Ruble’s adze was forged by late southern Vigo County blacksmith Dave Voges, whose multi-talents were also featured in videos at the IU exhibit this fall.

Ruble’s toolkit also contains a bowl chisel, a carvers hook and a rasp. The key material, of course, is the wood, typically cut from fallen Indiana hardwood trees that aren’t destined for commercial purposes. Ruble favors cherry, butternut, walnut and Kentucky coffee trees for his bowls, but also utilizes other types of wood from as light as white ash to as dark as black walnut, along with white and red oak, sugar maple, sassafras and others.

Sawmills might reject some woods Ruble uses, like the dark-streaked, mineral- stained tulip poplar. “Sap stains are a no-no in commercial wood, but they’re great for bowls,” he said. “I think it gives it character.”

Once the bowls take reach their finished form, Ruble sands the wooden art piece; microwaves it; burns the date, wood type and his name on the back; and applies a coat of oil.

He carries out that process — except for the sanding — in the living room of the rural Prairie Creek home, where Ruble and his wife, Susie, live. Ruble covers the floor with a drop cloth, sets chair in front of a sassafras stump with handles (his mobile workbench), pulls out his toolkit and starts hewing.

“It’s his relaxer,” Susie said. “Sometimes we sit and watch television and he’s just chipping away.”

Ruble sometimes sells as many as 100 bowls at the Indiana state fair. “That’s a year’s work, though,” he said. “You can’t just knock ‘em out.”

He sells other hand-hewn bowls individually, and also donates pieces to nonprofits, such as palm crosses for the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. All are usable to hold food, from baby-size up to a “mother-inlaw bowls.”

The benefits of bowl making go beyond the physical results, though. Transforming a block of wood into a keepsake bowl, one swing of the adze at a time, can be therapeutic — a “relaxer,” as Susie put it.

“For me, it was a good stress reliever,” Ruble said. “As a superintendent of parks, I had a lot of stress, and I could [hew a bowl] and just relieve a lot of that.”

Folk arts also provide a creative outlet to help older adults overcome feelings of loneliness, helplessness and boredom. Kay highlighted dozens of elder folk artists in the 2017 publication “Memory, Art and Aging: A Resource and Activity Guide.” “These inspiring artists are fiddlers, storytellers, quilters, cooks, carvers and more,” Kay wrote in the guide. They “employ a range of traditional arts and knowledge to help them flourish in their later years,” he added. It also provides activity ideas for individuals and groups.

Dale Findley, whose bowls were featured in the IU exhibit, learned bowl hewing in 2019 from Ruble, who attends the same church. Ruble guided Findley to the tools and wood pieces necessary. Findley was 82 then. Two years later, the retired ISU education professor has made 92 bowls.

“When I started, I was amazed,” Findley said Monday, “because you get a product out of this.” He gives away his bowls. Last weekend, he distributed 32 handmade bowls to his family, which includes 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “They all loved the bowls, and that’ll make you feel really good,” Findley said. “By using the adze, and chopping and sanding, it gives you some exercise.

“So it has been a godsend to me,” he added. Fellow Vigo County bowl maker Blaine Berry is an 82-year-old retired arborist. He’s sold 52 bowls this year, had several in the IU exhibit, and joined Ruble and Findley in a demonstration for the university students this fall in Bloomington.

“It keeps me going,” Berry said Monday. “I’ve got to have something to do. I’m not one of those guys who can sit around in a rocking chair. It’s a hobby that kind of turned into a job, and I didn’t intend that.”

Berry watched Ruble demonstrate bowl hewing in Bridgeton in 1983. “He could make a bowl that wasn’t round,” Berry recalled, which intrigued him. Berry’s been making bowls ever since, as well as Windsor chairs.

He sticks to the traditional bowl shapes — round, oval and rectangular — that are practical and “hereditary,” as in likely to be passed down through generations.

“I feel like they’re going to be around a lot longer than me,” Berry said.
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