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Handiwork from the Heart

Educator turned artisan, Jay Helland crafts priceless pieces for family and friends.

“We all have a certain love language and mine happens to be gift giving. For me, I show my love for family and friends by making them wooden items,” says artisan Jay Helland. From desks to rockers to segmented turnings, Jay handcrafts generational pieces of furniture and keepsake items that straddle the line between pieces of art and items of use.

Jay is a giver by nature. As an educator in Lee’s Summit, Jay shared his passion for industrial arts with his students. As a wrestling and football coach, Jay led young athletes. As a grandfather, he is teaching his oldest grandson how to drive. Even in retirement, Jay continues to share his skills through workshops and guest appearances at area schools.

Jay began woodworking as a young boy. “My very first opportunity to make a project was in a Boys Club in Wichita Falls, Texas. I made a sword and a bird house. The only instruction we received was how to turn on a band saw and keep our fingers away from the blade.”

Over the years, his skills have sharpened, and he has managed to keep his fingers away from the blades.

Sam Maloof is a name that pops up often in conversation with Jay. Maloof is considered by many to be the iconic master woodworker and furniture designer of contemporary America. Jay met the “Hemingway of hardwood” in 2004 at the insistence of a former student, Dr. Cartland Burns. Dr. Burns was living in Los Angeles at the time and convinced Jay to come visit Maloof’s studio and home in Alta Loma. During the tour, the duo met Sam. “After finding out that I had come all the way from Missouri, he invited us to join another small group for a personal tour of his shop, home and wood storage building. We were given unbelievable access to him. We listened for over three hours to his stories and hung onto every word spoken. The day was awesome and almost too good to be true,” Jay recounts.

Jay came home from that trip inspired to embark on the lofty goal of making a Maloof-styled chair. To date, Jay has created seven Maloof inspired dining room chairs and fourteen rockers. “Maloof’s rockers are true sculptures of functional art that are as comfortable as they are beautiful,” Jay says. Because of the intense handwork and necessary symmetry, it is one of the most challenging pieces he makes, requiring approximately 140 hours of handiwork per rocker.

Not surprisingly, Jay shares that the most satisfying part of the entire process for him is in the giving to someone who appreciates the piece.

Jay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016. Upon the diagnosis, he made a list of all the woodworking projects he wanted to complete while still physically able. The list is 70 lines long, often with multiple items on a single line. He has about a dozen projects left to meet his goal.

On that list of completed items are two tool cabinets for Jay’s grandsons, Tyler, 16, and Max, 8. No ordinary tool cabinets and each unique in design, these pieces of furniture are filled with a maze of compartments, each opening up to another like a puzzle box. Inside each is a collection of tools, hand-drawn plans for the cabinets, and a journal Jay created with thoughts for each boy while he was making the cabinets. He has advised them to hang on to their tools until they are in their 50’s. Jay says, “I don’t believe in pushing them into something but I hope to be around to help them if they want to learn.”

And so, Jay Helland continues to speak his love language loud and clear. He is steadfast in the creation of a legacy through the art of woodworking. His is the gift that will keep on giving for years to come.