St. Cloud Times 3/3/02 and St Paul Pioneer Press 3/11/02

Mike Odden works on his latest knife project at his studio in his Holdingford home. (Times photos by Paul Middlestaedt)
3 March, 2002
Sharpening his art
Kristin Gustafson
Times staff writer


You can tell by the cuts, calluses and inked crevices in his palms that Mike Odden likes to work with his hands.
This retired Holdingford junior and senior high school arts teacher and former Central Minnesota Arts Board member has done ceramics, painting, as well as science fiction, cartoon and fantasy drawing through the years.
Most recently, Odden has added knifemaking to his repertoire of artistic creations.
"I thought, what am I going to do when my wife doesn't have jobs for me?" he said of the time he spends since retiring from teaching.
Odden collected bayonette tips as a child -- paying for them with the profits from his paper route.
The first knife he made was when he was in 10th or 11th grade, he said. In 1968, he won a statewide industrial arts award for his efforts.
But his draw toward these sharp-edged tools diminished as he got older. It was not until much later that he realized his mistake in selling his complete bayonette-tip collection during college.
Instead, Odden found his niche with clay and canvas.
He said he has sold his "functional pottery" at art fairs, usually for less than $100, and fired his works in his 40-cubic-foot gas kiln. His home and art studio are full of paintings and other visual art he made during his college and teaching years.
"It has been years since I've worked with clay," he said.
He quit because of carpal tunnel syndrome. The repetitive stress disorder made it painful to work with the clay and to hold a paint brush. Odden could hold small pieces for only a few minutes at a time. Surgery this past year -- which spliced a line into each of his palms -- finally gave him relief.
During these years of pain, Odden considered his childhood hobby and love of buck knives. Two years ago, he began to comb the Internet to buy old buck knives.
He likes knives because they are useful tools, he said.
"I've carried a knife ever since I was a kid," he said, noting that the only exception to this was when he was teaching.
It was during this time of searching, learning and starting to collect -- even before his surgeries brought him relief -- that Odden found someone to teach him.
"You don't see many knifemakers around," he said. Odden found one in the area -- a knifemaker he considers a master.
Learning knife art
Through his research on buck knives, Odden heard about R.B. Johnson, a Clearwater artist who has been making knives for almost 30 years.
When Odden called him, Johnson invited the rookie to watch the veteran work.
"I get (inquiries) all the time," Johnson said. His personal touches include fossilized, woolly mammoth and Siberian ivory and mother-of-pearl handles.
"They are interested in how things are done and how to use the tools," said Johnson, who also sells the small screws, pivot pins and titanium used for knives. "It is all I do."
Odden seemed fairly committed to the craft, Johnson observed. "Plus he is
an artist, and so he has a good eye for design."
The two spent a nine-hour day together as Johnson made a folderknife -- one which includes a blade that folds into the handle. The all-steel tool had a mosaic, damascus blade, a titanium liner, decorative file work and a ruby imbedded into the handle for a touch of color. It was a knife that could sell for about $800 and Odden bought it to remember the day and honor his instructor.
"This to me is like a piece of jewelry and I like that," Odden said. "(Johnson) is so professional and has been doing it so long, his skills are honed."
Johnson has watched knifemaking improve since he began his craft in 1973.
"The best knives in the history of the world are being made now," he said. "Now the sculptors and jewelers have jumped into the field and some of the things they are making are amazing."
And people are more willing to invest in quality knives.
"It is very common now that if they have a $30,000 pickup and a $900 dollar rifle, a $200 knife isn't out of the realm of possibility," Johnson said.
Odden said he plans to wait to sell his own work until he is comfortable with the quality. He has been experimenting with different types of steel and heat temperatures, using a homemade sander and converted kiln
"Knifemaking is where stoneware was 30 years ago," Odden said. "I can see where it'll get so we all have custom cutlery."
Odden's gray-green eyes light up as he talks about the prospect of his new artistic interest.
"Making your own tools is a pretty cool thing," he said. "There is the challenge of craftsmanship ... I'm used to throwing paint and now I'm dealing with a thousandth of an inch."
True artist
Dan Creed, a current Central Minnesota Arts Board member, knows Odden through his service on the board.
Odden just retired from his position after serving nine years, the maximum term allowed.
Odden brought "a real common-sense approach to virtually every issue," Creed said. He said Odden always was one to ask: "Should we be doing this?"
Another board member, Catherine Meyers, has seen Odden's knife work.
"I just remember it being so incredibly intricate," she said. "It's pretty amazing."
Meyers described Odden as an "easy-going, mellow guy with a sense of humor. And, she laughed, "He's always coming to meetings with his fingers in bandages."
Odden, with thick brown hair and a large mustache, looks through his glasses at the items on his work table: an 8-inch long, 1-inch wide piece of metal from a blacksmith, a dark brown and caramel colored jig-bone handle, a titanium liner, a tool-steel blade, stainless steel and carved metal.
He also has blocks of micarta, a linen-and-resin material used for the knife handles.
In the center of the room, his homemade air filter -- draped with an old cotton piece of clothing recycled into a new use -- catches the smoke and dust from the air.
In the far corner of his art studio is an enclosed case full of unique and one-of-a-kind buck knives.
And what does his wife think of this reincarnation of his childhood hobby?
She has a collection of her own, he said.
"She likes swords."

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