For 62 years, the Rock County Historical Society has hosted its popular Tallman Arts Festival on the first Sunday in August.
And every year, organizers parse through submissions from some of the region’s most gifted artists to amass a collection of creativity that will entice the hundreds who attend.
Among those who have become regular exhibitors is Janesville’s Fred Frommelt, an 88-year-old craftsman with an affinity for hardwoods. Each of his handmade bowls and pepper grinders is unique not only in color but also in style.
But he hesitates to call himself an artist.
“People come by, and they always ask, ‘Are you the artist?’” he said. “Well, since that’s what they call me, I guess I’m an artist. But I mostly consider what I do to be high-end crafts.”
Frommelt is being modest, and a visit to his workshop, Accents in Wood, serves as a testament to his talent. A lathe, planer, sanders ... all manner of wood-manipulating machinery is available, and numerous varieties of wood are stored at the ready. Slats that have been glued and clamped with care lean gently against a nearby bench, and several other pieces in progress patiently await their next steps.
“It started out as a hobby and ended up as a full-time job,” Frommelt jokes. “I’m out in the garage for five or six hours a day, every day.”
Frommelt’s journey is an interesting one. As a child, he learned how to handle tools from his father, a superintendent at several large apartment buildings on Milwaukee’s north side. As an adult, he used his knowledge to become a machinist/tool and die maker in both his hometown and Chicago.
But then he changed things up. He worked his way through stops in Mundelein, Illinois, as a volunteer firefighter and dive shop owner, and in Key Largo, Florida, as a scuba instructor before eventually coming back to Wisconsin to work a charter boat service delivering scuba divers to shipwreck sites in Lake Michigan.
Once back home, an artistic opportunity arose.
“When I came back, my brother-in-law was making bowls out of wood,” Frommelt said. “I saw what he was doing and got into it through him. He dropped out of it, and I kept on going.”
That was 30 years ago, and Frommelt hasn’t slowed down. He estimates he has made thousands of bowls and pepper grinders—each taking an average of 4 to 8 hours—and he continues to focus on those two items simply because “they sell the best.”
“I’m mostly asked for custom bowls or pepper grinder sets, but other times it’s stuff that I don’t have the capability or the equipment to do,” he said, admitting to dalliances with cutting boards, lazy susans and other items. “People ask, but I just can’t do large items or cabinetry work.”
Frommelt’s workspace is connected to Another Time Around, a used-book store at 261 E. Memorial Drive. His dedication to operating and maintaining the store, which he ran with his late wife, Mary Ann, gives Frommelt a valid reason to spend extra hours in the shop.
“I’m always here from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. because I have the book store right next door,” he said. “Running the store was my wife’s job until she passed away. I keep it open now because, what am I going to do with 10,000 books if I close it?”
Inside his shop, Frommelt is surrounded by such popular domestic wood varieties as maple, pecan and cherry, but he also keeps Central and South American products such as purpleheart, yellowheart and zebrawood on hand. The various species often are combined together to create items that boast beautiful striations and color changes.
Cherry burls, recognized to most people as the bumps that resemble warts on trees, are also a valued resource.
“I had a fellow walk up to me and ask me if I wanted some burls, and I didn’t know what a burl was,” Frommelt said. “But I bought one and tried to figure out how to make a bowl out of it. They have no discernible grain to them, and they can have fissures, holes or foreign materials in them. They make beautiful bowls and pepper grinders, but they can’t be relied on as food-safe for bowls.”
Unlike paints or portraits, working in wood poses a few slight dangers. Aside from the occasional sliver, Frommelt said his greatest concern involves items spinning at high velocity.
“On a lathe, things can fly apart,” he said. “If you get a bad glue joint, things can go sailing through the air.”
That hasn’t been a big problem for Frommelt, and he doesn’t want the possibility to deter people from trying their hands at woodworking. In fact, it is a hobby he wholeheartedly encourages others to try.
“Don’t be afraid to just get into it,” he said. “I run into people at shows and they tell me, ‘I just bought a lathe,’ and I say ‘Good for you!’ Even though I’m self-taught, I give them all the tips I know.
“It’s just like you see in the ads: ‘Just Do It.’ All you’ve got to have is the desire.”