Ahwatukee’s Eric Kruse is receiving local acclaim for his artistry in wood, and his work with Zululand Rhino Orphanage has his reputation going global.
His company, Signed in Wood, is an active contributing artist with the nonprofit Global Conservation Corps, which is dedicated to conserving the environment and protecting the endangered rhino.
This work began when he started producing wildlife art pieces in wood – giraffes, tigers, elephants and rhinos.
“While researching those pieces I learned how the rhinos were being slaughtered for their horns, and how they could become extinct in less than five years,” he said while taking a break from working on a new rhino wooden artwork given to recurring corps donors.
After learning of the threat to the rhino population, Kruse reached out to Matt Lindenberg, corps president, about joining with him and other Ahwatukee artists who were hosting their first Art Night in April.
Besides showcasing their various works, they hosted a fundraiser for the nonprofit.
It was well-received by the community, and Kruse and his four fellow members of Ahwatukee Artists raised $1,500 for the Zula Rhino Orphanage. Lindenberg attended the Art Night fundraiser.
“Never in a thousand years did I think my work would go global,” said Kruse. “Social media does wonders to bring art to places worldwide. It feels good to be seen, and even better to be doing good for the rhinos in South Africa.”
Signed in Wood is a fairly new venture for Kruse, as is the artistry in wood he is becoming known for.
“I’ve been doing this type of woodworking for a little over two years and formed Signed in Wood about six months after,” he said. “I give myself another year before I can make the decision about going all in. I know, however, that I will always work with wood even if it’s just a side job or hobby.”
Kruse works out of his Ahwatukee garage.
But don’t expect piles of sawdust or various machinery or tools scattered about. Each evening after work, it is meticulously tidied.
“My dad taught me woodworking and he was very meticulous about cleaning up every night, and that’s what I do. I have a lot of different storage areas, and every night two cars go in that two-car garage I use during the day,” he said.
Kruse telecommutes as a salesman of appliances supplying large apartment complexes and student housing throughout the U.S. This allows him time to pursue his art while earning a good living.
“I work hard and get a lot done in the morning, and then I’m free to work with my wood,” he said.
And even while his talents are being appreciated by GCC donors and others worldwide, he is very much attuned to what’s happening locally.
During every quarterly bulk trash pickup, he’s not too proud or famous to get in his Toyota Prius and roam his neighborhood in search of wood bound for the landfill.
“It’s like Christmas every quarter,” he laughed.
Saving good wood that wasn’t appreciated or no longer needed is exactly what propelled him into returning to the craft his father taught him.
“What started me in doing this was to be able to recycle and repurpose wood I saw being discarded, And now I’m getting known enough that people call me when they have extra wood,” he said.
He noted that he’d recently been contacted to look over some redwood decking material.
He also has leftover wood regularly supplied by Ahwatukee’s Brad Brown, his friend and owner of Gates by Brad.
“These are just gate remnants – wood he and the homeowner would normally throw away,” said Kruse. “And I recently picked up some old bowling lane wood. Some actually have the arrows still on it.”
Wasted wood is anathema to Kruse.
“Nothing gets wasted, and I do use the scrap pieces to make mosaic art as well,” he said pointing to two pieces – wood maps of Arizona and Utah.
Other artworks feature images – including people and pets.
“I typically use a template that I print out and put on the wood, though I also do freehand, too.” he explained. “Then I carve the image using a hand router. I apply stain, sand and finish. I also use Photoshop on my computer to help design the images before I move on to other processes.”
Besides his wild animal prints, Kruse has a line of deciduous tree art and Zen pieces featuring images of Buddha and the lotus flower, which represents long life, health, honor and good luck.
“I do a lot of trees because the irregularities of the wood I’m using comes through,” he said, pointing to works displayed on his computer screen.
The rustic look of woods, including otherwise pedestrian pallets, augment the beauty of the intricate tree shapes.
One large three-panel piece commissioned by Ahwatukee’s Foothllls Baptist Church depicts the world map printed on knotty wood. The vertical lines of each panel, serving as the backdrop for the 8-foot-by-6-foot map, resemble longitude lines.
Foothill Baptist’s Discipleship/Missions Pastor Brian McCoy said the world map, flanked by rotating photos of missions and missionaries they support, serves as a centerpiece for the church’s local and global mission partnerships.
“The piece hangs in our main hallway and hundreds of eyes see it every week. It’s a reminder that as a church family, our prayers, funds and even members, spread across our city and the world for the purpose of God’s glory and the good of humanity,” said McCoy.
“We’ve received nothing but very positive comments about the map,” McCoy added. “It’s a great piece for us, and Eric’s skill and talented eye brought it together for us in a way that brings life and purpose to the space.”
The map and other works, such his animal and people portraits, often emerge unbidden from the wood pieces as the artist sorts through his varied collection.
“I base my perspective on what the wood looks like, and how it speaks to me,” he explained. ”I tend to do a lot more custom pieces, but if there’s a lull, I’ll do my own stuff. I continue to get better and better.”
His dyes used as stain are often drawn from his own recipe book using organic pigments he has developed, including the use of cayenne pepper and vinegar as a lightening agent.
“My standard stain is made with vinegar and rusty nails,” he said “I like the circle of life as I use the nails from the pallets, and then use it to stain the wood from the pallets. To me, it just all fits nicely together. Balance.”
His work and his art are balanced with time with his family – wife Karen, a business owner, and children Joshua, 20, and Olivia, 18 – and exercise.
He plays basketball at the Ahwatukee Foothills YMCA three times a week and Sundays at Tempe YMCA. He’s completed six marathons and two bike rides over 100 miles.
“I like to say I’m a creative guy who likes to try new things,” said Kruse.
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