Wood carver buys school building to display massive collection
Thu, 10/06/2022 - 12:15pm admin
— Slim Maroushek learned to carve from Bily Brothers
Beki Groenwald TPD Staff
RIDGEWAY - Stanley “Slim” Maroushek really likes wood carvings. Or perhaps “really likes” is a misnomer. Loves? Is obsessed with? You decide, but do so in the context of over 70 years spent collecting wood carvings from all around the world.
Maroushek was born and raised on a Ridgeway farm across the road from the Bily Brothers of Bily Clocks fame. In the late 1940s, when he was just a boy of seven or eight, he remembers running errands for the brothers as well as sitting and watching them carve.
“They were really my mentors into the wood carving field,” Maroushek said. They inspired him to start collecting at that tender age of seven; and in fact, his very first piece, a small rabbit that was part of a clock they were fixing, came from them.
Now Maroushek’s collection is 5,000-plus pieces strong and still growing.
Such a massive collection, as one might suspect, is a challenge to display. For 20 years, Maroushek displayed his then 4,000-piece collection at Slim’s Woodshed in Harmony, Minn. After closing that location in 2016, he stored the vast majority of pieces in several locations, including two semi trailers, and moved his wood shop to Spillville, next door to Bily Clocks.
But there just simply wasn’t enough room for him in that location.
Realizing he needed a much bigger space, Maroushek began investigating places to display the collection. One of the leading contenders was a museum in Ohio. And others were interested, too. Collectors offered him six figures for the collection when it was right around 4,000 pieces, but Maroushek was worried they wouldn’t keep the collection intact, that they were going to break it up to see what they could get from it.
And that was something Maroushek couldn’t have. He’s spent a lifetime building this collection, and he wants it to remain intact. And he doesn’t want to take the collection out of Iowa, either. “It was always my wish and dream to keep this collection, which is now over 5,000 pieces, here in Iowa,” he said.
And now his dream has become a reality. In a deal freshly inked, Maroushek purchased the old Ridgeway Elementary School to serve as the permanent home for his wood carving collection.
“The collection is going to Ridgeway because it’s my home school, where I went to school,” he said. “And it’s big enough to handle the whole collection. And to handle all the forms of our endeavor.”
“Our endeavor,” he says because the collection has grown in other ways than just piece count. Now the collection is the jewel in the endeavor that has become the non-profit entity of Turkey River Cultural Center, LLC. With Maroushek at the helm and an impressive set of board members to back him up, the dream has become something more than just the sum of all its parts.
“My wish is that we can keep developing it [the collection] to keep showing people what is possible,” the wood carver said. And that development involves branching out from just wood carving.
“The reason it’s a cultural center,” Maroushek offered, “is we’re going to have music. Carving. Wood burning. Painting. It’s going to be a diversified thing. That’s one of the reasons we used the words ‘Turkey River Cultural Center.’ We’re going to be our own little thing, but we’re going to have a pretty big umbrella. The focus will be wood carving and spread out from that.”
Their plans for the cultural center’s future include having visiting artists. They plan to make several small studio apartments for artists in residence, and they already have artists wanting to come.
All this diversification is a pretty accurate reflection of Maroushek’s life in general. He started this journey as a seven-year-old collector and has branched out from there.
For years, he was in the construction business, and his idea of a vacation was going somewhere in the world and relaxing for 30 days while he hunted for new and exciting wood carvings to add to his always expanding collection.
Thirty years a collector; then, at 38, a devastating diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.
The world changed. “In 1981, I had the world’s worst case of depression,” he said. Suffering the effects of MS affected his ability to walk and to see. It was then that his two daughters jumped in with an idea. “My two lovely daughters thought it would be nice for me to start carving because I collected them,” he said, smiling.
And that’s exactly what he did.
After years of scouring the world for pieces to expand his collection, he began creating pieces of his own. “When I came down with MS, if it wouldn’t have been for wood carving, I don’t know where I would have been,” he said. With a renewed sense of purpose, it didn’t take long for him to become an accomplished carver, turning out museum-quality pieces. Moving in to teaching seemed an obvious diversification.
So that’s exactly what he did.
Maroushek taught all over the U.S. Way out to Phoenix, Ariz. and Clearwater, Fla. From Minnesota down to New Orleans. From Branson, Mo. to Arlington, Texas.
“As the song says,” he quoted, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” In northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota alone, he estimates he’s taught over 300 students the art of wood carving. And he’s not only taught, but also judged numerous shows, particularly in Chicago and St. Louis.
First a collector, then a carver, then a teacher. Now all three.
This journey of diversification and mastery has culminated in the Turkey River Cultural Center and a 5,000-plus piece collection so massive it requires an old school building to properly display it. And the distinctiveness of that collection is an important aspect of its appeal to Maroushek.
“My collection is so diverse, it’s not just one person’s collection any more,” he said. “I have a vision, or a dream, that every time you went to a museum, you’d just see one man’s collection, one guy’s this, one guy’s that. When I started collecting this from the Bily brothers, I thought, wouldn’t that be interesting to show other people’s carvings from all over the world?”
“There’s countries now that are [represented] in this collection that are no longer in existence,” he continued. “They’ve been taken over by other countries, or split up or whatever. Yugoslavia is one particular one.”
But it’s more than just diversity of origin. Somewhere, stored in a semi trailer, awaiting the room to go on display, Maroushek has an 18-foot-tall totem pole and a 16-foot-tall Uncle Sam carving. He also has a delicate, “fan bird” necklace carved in Slovenia that fits in the palm of his hand.
There’s a Caricature Carvers of America Circus: 125 pieces carved by 23 different artists, all set up under a big top that, when properly displayed, takes up the majority of a single room in his current location. In another room, there’s a beautiful carousel of intricately carved horses made by a lifer in Anamosa State Penitentiary.
And then there’s the life-sized hobo camp Maroushek carved himself, featuring depictions of real-life hobos Oklahoma Oscar, Harmony Hank, Handbag Hattie, The Preacher, Sleepy Slim and Dawg. That one’s in his back yard now, but he plans to display it in front of the Turkey River Cultural Center to welcome visitors to the collection.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said about the pieces he can display in his current location. It boggles the mind to imagine the breadth and depth of the entire collection that will start moving to the Turkey River Cultural Center in October.
Maroushek is understandably excited by the prospect of the big move. He wants to be out of the current location by winter and have the entire collection in place and ready for a grand opening in Ridgeway some time around April or May of 2023.
For Maroushek, it’s the culmination of a life’s work, a journey of collecting and creating, but most importantly, sharing the fruits of his passion for the art of wood carving.
From that seven-year-old boy to the present day, he’s struggled through all the twists and turns life has thrown at him, with one guiding principle to drive him ever onward: the collection. And perhaps one of the greatest “wins” of that collection is finally finding a way to keep the entire collection together and in northeast Iowa.
“I feel, it’s here,” Maroushek declared. “It started here; I want it here.”
“I’m 80 years old now,” he added, “and I don’t know how much longer I have left. I want this here, where my children and grandchildren can see it. I want to leave a legacy.”