It all started with an eyeball in a rock. “Eyes are hard to do,” stated Leon Kridelbaugh, talking about the first time he picked up a piece of dolomite and decided to try stone carving. Kridelbaugh, a retired forester who lives outside of Rolla, started his stone carving hobby/business 25 years ago.
Before carving in stone, he’d been carving wood, whittling away his childhood in Ottumwa, Iowa. After moving to the area in the early 1970s, he took an adult education wood carving class at Rolla Junior High, offered by a Mr. Hill. He and his wife, Rosemary, also enjoyed attending annual National Craft Festivals at Silver Dollar City.
In 1978, when the Kridelbaughs once again visited the festival, Leon watched a stone carver from Independence named Ben Bunyar. Bunyar only had one hand, and wore an appliance attached to his other arm so that he could hold a rock. Kridelbaugh says he stood there and thought, “I bet I could do that,” and proceeded to bombard Bunyar with questions about stone carving.
Bunyar inspired Kridelbaugh to try carving on stone. Kridelbaugh said, “I came home with the idea that I might try that, and so I went out along the roadsides and picked up dolomite rocks. I brought them home, and they lay in the garage for quite a while. One evening I was bored with TV, so I went out to the shop and I had a small cold chisel and a carpenter’s hammer.”
He continued, “I began carving on this rock. I was just curious to see how hard it was … So I carved this eyeball … That one looked pretty good and so I thought, [a pause and then chuckle]‘Well I’ll put another one on here,’ and then I gave him a nose and a beard. I’ve still got him.”
Kridelbaugh chuckled again and said, “I haven’t carved wood since I turned to stone [pun intended].”
He added, “I began setting some things around the house, and pretty soon Rosemary said, ‘Don’t you think we have enough of these?’”
He said, “I had to figure out a way to get rid of these if I was going to continue to carve.” He took a dozen carvings to a KUMR craft show and was surprised to actually sell some of his work.
In 1984, when the Kridelbaughs attended the craft festival in Silver Dollar City, Bunyar informed them that it was his last year at the festival. The next year Kridelbaugh took over for Bunyar, demonstrating the craft. He worked there for 14 years. In 1993 his work was voted “Best in Show.”
Kridelbaugh gave credit to his wife of almost 50 years, and said, “Rosemary is a big helper. She went to nearly all of my shows, and when I was at Silver Dollar City, she worked in the booth with me.” He laughed and added, “She’s probably my best critic.”
Rosemary also accompanied Leon to West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1988, to a workshop offered by the Spaniard, Louis Montoya, a renowned stone carver. At that workshop, Kridelbaugh further honed his skills, and over the years has created several works of art not only from dolomite, but also from alabaster, marble and soapstone.
He said, “When I’m left to myself, I usually carve people.” An avid reader of nonfiction, he prefers to carve characters from historical times. He said, “I’ve gone through phases. I’ve read a lot on the Civil War, and then I became interested in the Long Hunters – Daniel Boone’s era. I got interested in the mountain men, and I’ve read a lot about Indians.” Thus, his carvings reflect his readings: Indian chiefs, WWI aviators, miners and animals such as eagles and buffaloes.
His commissioned works include Santa Clauses, an African lion, an elephant and a tombstone. A man from New England who had lost his 21-year-old son in a tragic accident commissioned the tombstone of slate. The man explained that he wanted a particular carving – of a skull nestled between a pair of wings – on the top of the tombstone. This signifies victory over death.
About his ability to “direct carve” on stone, Kridelbaugh said, “I never really believed that there was any talent needed. I always carved things and whittled things when I was a kid and I just assumed everybody could do it, if they really wanted to sit there and do it.”
He bolstered his theory by saying, “I’ve done a little teaching now, about seven or eight fellows who have come to the house, a one-on-one seminar … when I was at Silver Dollar City I noticed there were people who would come by and look at what I was doing and throw their hands up, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’ and I’m beginning to believe that it’s probably true. If you look at that and say you can’t do it, you probably can’t. But on the other hand, people come by and say ‘Well I would like to try that’ … I don’t know what it is, but there must be some inherent ability.’”
Nature or nurture? In the case of Leon Kridelbaugh and his stone carving, it’s probably a healthy dose of both. He laughed and described his fondness for stone, “It’s a hobby that’s out of control.”
First published in Jan. 2004. Mr. Kridelbaugh’s current website: http://www.fidnet.com/~leonrose/index.html