Paraplegic woman carves out a new hobby

Dave Bakke

Until five years ago, Jean Oppegard wasn’t a wood carver. Now she’s a champion.

Her heron won Best in Show and People’s Choice at this year’s Sangamon Valley Woodcarvers show.

Oppegard, who lives in Carlinville, and her partner, Skip Logan, spend their winters at an RV park in Mission, Texas. The park has organized activities for residents — including woodcarving and painting. Oppegard started with painting.

“When I ran out of wall space,” she says, “I went to woodcarving.”

That was five years ago when she signed up for the beginner’s workshop. In Texas, they have an air-conditioned carving room that Oppegard can get as messy as she wants. It’s not that way at home. She usually carves on the back deck, where the shavings have to be cleaned up.

“I like to carve birds because we became birders in Texas,” she says. “They have the most beautiful birds in the country there.”

While she usually carves animals and birds, she is working on a morel mushroom and also does comical human characters.

“I don’t make it a job,” she says. “I have friends who carve eight hours a day, six days a week. I don’t. I have too many other things going on.”

The reason she didn’t find out she had a talent for woodcarving earlier in her life is that she was too busy working two jobs. Then she retired.

“I was worried,” she says. “What was I going to do?”

What she did was discover hidden artistic talents. She still considers herself a beginner, but the record says otherwise.

She did well at last year’s Sangamon competition, winning four ribbons for a carving of a leaping deer, a blue heron and a long relief carving of deer on basswood, which is her favorite type of wood to carve. One of her carvings of a heron made Chip Chats, the magazine of the National Wood Carvers Association.

She’s a member of Carlinville’s Macoupin County Woodcarvers group, which meets the third Tuesday of every month.

“I’m having fun and staying off the streets,” she jokes.

Bill McAllister of Carlinville originated that club.

“She’s got an eye for it,” he says of Oppegard. “And she’s very dedicated to her work. She’s a great member in the club.”

What makes her accomplishment more remarkable is that Oppegard is a paraplegic. She had polio as a child, which eventually went into remission.

“I had 40 good years,” she says, “then I got post-polio syndrome.”

Because she has little use of her legs, she uses either a mobility cart or crutches to get around. She cannot stand at a grinder to sharpen her tools, so other carvers usually sharpen her tools for her.

She uses knives, an electric grinder and gouger. She wears a filet glove to keep from cutting herself accidentally.

“Women don’t cut themselves,” she says, “because we’ve peeled so many potatoes in our lives. But men cut themselves. I keep a supply of Band-Aids around for them.”

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541