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Carving Out a Legacy

August 11, 2006

Perched on a stool in his home-based shop, Don Floren grips a surgically sharp carving tool and begins shaping a large block of Oregon alder. Faced with the diminishing availability of Honduras mahogany, his quintessential favorite material, Floren has adopted alder–an abundant local wood that carves and finishes nicely.

“Good carving wood is warm and dynamic–and unforgiving” he says. “Unlike clay, it doesn’t let you slap the nose back on a face if you accidentally slice it off. Starting over is not unheard of.”

Floren befriended wood out of necessity after buying his first house in Portland. Unable to afford carpenters, he learned the art of renovation and furniture making the hard way–through trial and error. His interest in American history and culture–as well as colonial-era antiques–has deepened his appreciation for the medium 

A self-taught artisan, Floren has carved wood for 35 years, “the last few seriously.” His body of work falls into three main categories: folk carvings in the tradition of 17th- and 18th-century American maritime crafters, representational faces and figures, and letter-cutting and traditional incised signage. In addition to private collections, his work has found its way into the corporate collections of Montinore Vineyards, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, McCormick’s Grill, and the Portland Brewing Company.

Floren’s favorite piece, titled “WaterDance,” is a work in progress. Three feet square and twenty inches high, the sculpture captures the mating ritual of three Western grebe waterfowl. 

“When I can coax a splash of water out of the wood, I’ll have a piece I truly love,” he says.

A purist who embraces challenge, Floren eschews what he calls noisy and messy abrasive power tools, preferring more traditional slicing tools–gouges and chisels that he can drive with a mallet. Some weeks he works every day in his shop; some weeks he stays away completely. “Those who work in art know better than to keep track of their time,” he says.

Back in the day when he did watch the clock, Floren worked as a technical writer, editor, management development consultant, and manager of in-house TV and media production at Tektronix. He also taught high school English and journalism. “A characteristic of my personality is that as soon as I gain the respect and recognition of my peers in any field, I get bored and begin looking for the next challenge.”

Currently, Floren chairs the board of Lewis & Clark’s Albany Society, which is open to all alumni who graduated from the College 50 or more years ago, and sits on the National Board of Alumni. He still feels at home at Lewis & Clark, where he met his wife, Diane Vinton ‘55, and was married by then-president Morgan Odell.

Floren says the greatest challenge as one grows older is to “remain relevant.”

His solution? Carve out something difficult.

–by Pattie Pace

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