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Carving Out a Niche

October 14, 2008

Dr. Judith Hakes discovered the avocation for which she is best known while trying to do her job.

The ASU Teacher Education professor took up woodcarving while struggling to manage an unruly bunch of fifth graders as an elementary teacher in Woodland Park, Colo.

“There was a batch of boys coming up and nobody had been able to handle them,” Hakes said.  “We were studying northwest coast Indians and their totem poles, and I asked the boys what kind of activities they would like to do.  They said they would like to carve totem poles.”

Hakes had to learn the craft on the fly to keep up with her charges, but woodcarving was a natural for Hakes, whose father was a cabinet maker in Michigan.  The self-taught woodcarver took the craft she learned in that Colorado classroom and has stuck with it for more than 30 years.

Her best-known piece is the university mace carried by distinguished faculty members during graduation ceremonies.  The mace was designed in 1995 by a committee of faculty, staff and students and constructed by Bobby Peiser, retired ASU campus security director. 

Hakes’ job was to carve a Rambouillet ram, the columns of the Porter Henderson Library and the Twin Buttes, a landmark west of San Angelo, on oval mesquite inlays in the orb of the mace.  When she received the mace from Peiser, he had already fashioned the orb and set in the three blank ovals.

“I had no room for error,” Hakes said.  “I carved right on the orb.  I didn’t have a vice to hold it, so I did the carving in my lap.  One of the insets was the ram and I was comfortable with that because I’ve carved a lot of rams.”

She said the Twin Buttes image was more challenging because of the limited space and it had a Concho Pearl to be inset to represent the moon.

“Nobody wanted to set the pearl into the wood, so I did it,” Hakes said.  “I make a lot of jewelry, so that part didn’t bother me, but the carving had to be exactly right.”

Hakes said she likes to work with walnut, cherry and maple, but she has carved exotic woods like ebony and rosewood.  She said ebony is a dense wood and difficult to carve, but even wood she likes can be difficult, like the wood in a violin she carved.

“My violin has a fiddle back with a curl in the hard maple,” Hakes said.  “It will humble you.  It is not easy.  Sometimes you get a burl or highly figured wood with grain that goes every which way.”

A significant portion of Hakes’ woodworking involved musical instruments.  A violin, one of four she has carved, has a ram’s head instead of a scroll design which typically sits on the end of a violin.  The pegs used to tune the strings are in the shape of leaves and bigger leaf shapes are etched into the body of the violin.

Besides her four violins, Hakes also plans to add a mesquite harp to her collection of works, which already has three harps.  In addition, she has built hammered dulcimers, which are made with strings stretched over a trapezoidal wood frame.  Small mallet hammers strike the strings to sound notes.

Hakes’ interest in musical instruments comes from her original plan to major in music at the University of Michigan.

“Piano was my first instrument,” Hakes said.  “I played the clarinet, the saxophone, a little violin, banjo, the hammered dulcimer and the accordion.”

Hakes has performed publicly at such events as the Toenail Trail Days at Christoval and graduate banquets at ASU.

“I play music for my own enjoyment and for anyone who will listen,” she said.

A shortage of money diverted Hakes from a career in music and put her on a path to teaching.  She transferred to a junior college, then to the University of Northern Colorado where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.  She taught school and then completed her education with a doctorate from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Hakes taught in Farmington, N.M., and worked in Albuquerque with Native Americans.  When the grants that paid her salary ended, Hakes decided to return to teaching in 1985.

“The first announcement I received from the placement center in Boulder was from ASU,” Hakes said.  “This city and campus felt just like home.  It didn’t take me long to accept the position.  I was glad to get to a small university where the people still cared and were serious about what they were doing.  ASU has retained that after all these years.”

ASU also has afforded Hakes the opportunity to travel with its emphasis on international study and travel, she said.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am without that travel,” Hakes said.  “I hope we keep doing that and expand those programs.  Our students are going to benefit many times over – to have your way paid to go overseas and study is a fantastic opportunity.”