The Art of Making a Splash

Kent Lund's hand-made canoe paddles are simple but definitely not plain. They're made in a one-man workshop that smells like root beer - on the days he carves from sassafras. He lovingly crafts the paddles because the process gives him so much joy, not because he's expecting an artisanal paddle boom - though he no doubt wants clients who can appreciate and are willing to pay for the time and effort he puts into them. There's no high-tech innovation involved or viral social media movement declaring hand-made canoe paddles are proof that authenticity still exists in our modern society. There's just the quiet intersection of art and functionality.
 
While Lund's paddles are mainly meant for plying the waters, they are also decoration for homes and offices around the Midwest - or in the best case scenario, he says, for both paddling and interior design. Yes, they will weather and scratch with time, but, hopefully, will also provide stories to tell about past trips.
 
From a 12-by-12 workshop behind his Bloomfield Township home, Lund carves the paddles one at a time from pieces of lumber he picks through at a mill in Highland, Michigan. He looks for the pieces with the most interesting and attractive knots and grains. Back at the workshop, where he spends many evenings and weekends after house chores and his work as a photographer are done, he starts each paddle by tracing its shape - different shapes for different uses. 
 
The majority of the work, the carving, is done with two hand tools after he's cut out the traced shape with a power band saw. He spends 30-40 hours carving with a drawknife to remove the bark and smoke shave, which was originally designed to make wooden wheel spokes, and, occasionally, violin-making tools. After each paddle is carved, it's time to paint. The scenes are typically folk art, animals or Native-American scenes or whatever theme a buyer desires. 
 
His paddles are an homage to an old school, back-to-basics product that's been around for centuries, long before paddles were products, back when Indians and Voyageurs used them to work, survive and communicate tribe-to-tribe whether it was safe to come ashore.
 
In Lund's hands canoe paddles become little works of art and his hobby of woodcarving, something he's honed since childhood, is flowing into a fledgling business he calls Grand Rapids Paddle Company
 
"Sometimes I think back to what it was like before computers, and all the things we used to do with our hands that people no longer do," says Lund, a photographer agent and owner of HighwayPhoto. "How did we do it without them?" 
 
Lund's not anti-technology just an admirer of how self-sufficient humans can be when challenged to do so. Technology is very much a part of his day job, which recently had him coordinating a shoot with the Detroit Tigers Paws for an augmented reality application for smart phones. The technology will let visitors to Comerica Park take pics of the mascot at 40 different spots around the stadium.
 
Lund has been making paddles for at least 12 years. That's when when he decided to carve a congratulatory gift for his son's promotion to Eagle Scout and give him a paddle to use on a trip to the Minnesota boundary waters. 
 
"I wanted to make him something that wouldn't end up in a garage sale in five years," he says.
 
After that his daughter wanted one. His wife too. The whole family canoed the Huron River and various vacation spots with Lund's own paddles. Then friends, families and strangers (the a-ha moment) began to inquire. 
 
"What happened was people started asking for paddles. I started studying, learning more," he says. 
 
"My first paying customer came about eight years ago," he laughs.
 
It was his paddles' appearances in two ArtPrize exhibitions in Grand Rapids in 2012 and 2013 [CQ] that took the business on a more commercial route. Truth be told, Lund still mostly sees it as a hobby, something that takes him away from the push and pull of his career. 
 
"It's just my hobby. I'm having fun," he says. "I work on them as someone orders one or if I have an idea."
 
After the response he received after appearing at ArtPrize he decided to name his company after the host town, but his business is very much metro Detroit based and taking off at a time when canoeing, kayaking and recreational use of Michigan waters are enjoying a surge in popularity, largely thanks to growth of several grassroots groups that have cleaned up metro Detroit shoreline, built launches and organize outings.
 
Custom-made paddles aren't new, and several woodworkers around the country sell them from $100 to more than $1,000. Lund's paddles can typically be bought for $250 with occasional, more time-consuming paddles -such as a snake or frog shape- fetching $500. Besides carving the paddles, he strives to make them in their original form. He keeps books and researches and visits auctions and museums to study and take pictures of vintage paddles.
 
"I don't consider myself an artist. I'm a craftsman," says Lund, who is also a collector of wooden boats. "But I can't help but think what nice gifts these would make, keepsakes, special occasions. They're beautiful as decorations."
 
Two recent customers had special requests for Lund. One wanted a paddle built from a sentimental piece of Florida cypress that had to be cut down. Another wanted a paddle built to the scale of a model 1904 Morris canoe he had also commissioned. So Lund is carving a 33 1/2 inch paddle out of curly maple to hang with the eight-foot-long canoe.
 
Schools and art shows are seeking out his paddles and paddle-making skills and inviting him to teach classes. He recently taught mostly 20-something-year-old students at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The school is another return to handmade work, and a signal that our tech-driven economy still has a place for  old world skills.
 
Lund's paddles will be on display at a fly fishing show in Dexter in September, but he hasn't made a whole lot of hay out of his growing notoriety.
 
"I haven't promoted it too much. It's all been sort of happenstance," he says. "It's just something I love to do."