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Omaha Magazine

Elmer Miller: Burls, Woodturning, and Art

Sep 29, 2022 04:33PM ● By Chris Hatch
carver elmer miller admires his handiwork

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

"I should mention to you that I’m really into burls.” 

It doesn’t take long before Elmer Miller, the woodturner and artist from Murdock, Nebraska, opens up his verbal encyclopedia of wood. 

“Now, a burl is tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. Sometimes you’ll see it on the side of a trunk of a tree, there will be a big bump out. It’s commonly found in a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk, branch, or root,” Miller explained. “A lot of people don’t understand that it’s also found in the roots. A burl results from a tree being under stress in some way.”

This is what Miller does; what he has done for the past 20 years, since he retired from his position working for the University of Nebraska’s leadership development on Lincoln's East Campus. He takes a part of a tree that many would look at as defective or unsightly and he crafts and molds it, spins it to a new, repurposed life.

He makes hats, large and small, wooden brims swooping low like the Murdock sunset outside his shop window. He makes clocks and bowls—smoothing the edges of rough burls, and when the mood strikes, leaving some of that natural roughness intact. It’s a way of paying homage to where the wood came from and reminding his patrons that this was, in fact, once an imperfect, living thing.

”I get most of my burls from the West Coast,” he said, gesturing to a meticulously labeled wall of wood in the back of his shop; a veritable mosaic of former trees. Each chunk of timber varies as much as the land their roots once held. 

“Much of my wood comes from South America, Africa, lots of different countries as well,” he noted. “There’s a guy that I really trust, and he’ll send me a burl, sometimes a 400-pound burl on a pallet. I’ll chop it up and try to put it to work.” 

Putting it to work is an understated summation of Miller’s creative process and the mastery of his craft. But, that is his modus operandi; humble as an overlooked bulge on the root of a tree. 

“Any of those other artists, I mean. They are certainly way more artistic than I am,” he said when asked about his participation as a featured artists at the Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska this past June in Cass County. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

He said this, while standing next to a perfectly smooth, gorgeously glazed bowl that he has placed on a mad-scientist-looking lathe, rotating at high speed. He’s carved this piece of functional art from a gigantic slab of cherry tree. That it could easily be on the shelf of an art gallery is, apparently, lost on the modest woodturner.

The front of As the Windmill Turns, Miller’s business that he sheepishly calls “a hobby, more than anything...a way to keep my hands moving,” is located in his workshop—a few yards away from his residence on a gravel road outside Murdock, Nebraska.

It is there, amongst handcrafted pens and kaleidoscopes, that Miller spoke of his past and future. 

“I had a really great shop teacher in high school who got me interested in wood,” he said, smiling widely at the recollection. “It was another artist that first got me started on burls. It was at a show and I thought, Amen! I want to try that.”

Miller is all too happy evangelizing the art of woodturning. He is a member of two local woodturning clubs, the 50-person-strong Omaha Woodturners, and the slightly smaller Lincoln club, the Great Plains Woodturners.

“We just don’t have enough younger people,” he said when asked about the future of the medium. “Just the older people. We have tried in a variety of ways to have young people come at a variety of times to the club. But we just need young people, if they’re interested at all, they should really join in and see what they’re like.”

With that statement still hanging in the wood-scented air, Miller stepped across the floor of his shop, burl shavings littering the floor like a sawdust Jackson Pollock. He gazed knowingly at his library of uncut canvasses. It’s clear, any young artists would be wise to heed Miller’s advice. 

He certainly has a knack for finding the hidden beauty in things that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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