A spark of inspiration struck Ken Haverstick as he lit a fire at his Mount Laurel home.
"I was splitting some kindling, and I looked at this piece of wood - the texture - and I thought, 'I could make a petal out of that. I could make a flower,' " he recalls. "So I made a flower. And it took off from there."
What "took off" in the 30 years since his fireside epiphany is an intricate, idiosyncratic craft that combines elements of collage, marquetry, and still life sculpture.
From tiny pieces of pine and parts of acorns, seed pods, and other materials he collects from Mother Nature, the 85-year-old retired adman creates rustic yet delicate assemblages of flowers, leaves, and butterflies.
"I don't call myself an artist," says Haverstick, who refers to his pieces as "pictures" and takes special care with the framing of each. "I'm a crafter. I didn't read it in a book. I just did it."
His scrupulously organized workshop is in the garage of the Holiday Village home he shares with Marge, his wife of 61 years.
Haverstick turns down the classical music on the radio and - in a voice still laden with his native Bronx - talks about what he does.
Although he has taught himself this unique form of woodworking, Haverstick did study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He worked as art director (among other positions) at advertising agencies in New York and Philadelphia until his retirement more than 20 years ago.
The fruits of an experienced eye are visible in the gorgeous graininess and delightful contrasts of colors and shapes in his pieces, which are tastefully displayed throughout the Haversticks' light-filled house. His best work has the look of live blossoms, filling their frames with exuberant life.
"The only thing I buy is veneer wood in sheets, to make my leaves. My craft would be nothing without my leaves," Haverstick says. "Everything else is pickup, off the ground. You just find stuff; you drive around."
He grabs one of his neatly stacked boxes of raw materials, opening to an abundance of those spiky little fruits of the sweet gum tree.
"The tree drops these, and you pick them up, and when you grind them down with a grinding wheel, the beauty is inside," Haverstick says.
He's right: A cross-section of a "gumball" yields a hidden little world of crenellated nooks and crannies.
"Cuticle scissors are probably my most important tools," Haverstick continues, pointing to the rows of cutters, chisels, files, and scrapers that coax graceful shapes out of his chunky raw materials.
"It's amazing how he puts it all together," says Haverstick's son-in-law, Patrick Broomell. "I find his pieces just beautiful. Of course he dismisses all that, and says it's a craft."
Broomell, who lives in Marlton, says the work "means freedom" to his father-in-law.
"It connects him with something," he notes.
Including something to do: During the "crafts season," which runs from March until Christmas, Haverstick sells his wares at more than 20 local shows. He'll be at Washington Township High School in Gloucester County this Saturday.
"I don't need the money, and I don't do it for the money," Haverstick says. "I do it to stay out of trouble. I'd find some way to get in trouble if I didn't stay busy, I guarantee you.
"I use the money to take my wife to dinner, or tickets to a show if she wants to go," he adds.
Says Marge Haverstick, 83, "I like his work - and so does everybody who sees it."
Her husband certainly does have a gift for seeing the potential in, say, a tossed-away 2-by-4.
And his skills transform mundane organic objects, lending them a lovely second life.
Haverstick insists on calling himself a "crafter" rather than an artist, and that's certainly fine with me.
But I call it craftsmanship with art, and heart, and soul.
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or email@example.com.