Torvald Faegre (1941-2009) began his career in Chicago as a union carpenter working on large construction projects, but during the last 25 years he built his reputation on something decidedly smaller and quirkier – twigs.
He made rustic furniture and fanciful pieces out of branches and twigs he collected along train tracks and river banks. From buckthorn, willow, cottonwood, reed and bamboo, he designed and built tables, chairs, chandeliers, screens, mirrors, plant stands, lamps, coat racks and outdoor furniture such as trellises, arbors and wattle fences.
He even threatened to make a twig walker for himself after he was diagnosed with leukemia last December. He never made it.
Tor Faegre passed away Oct. 14. He is survived by his wife, artist Sue Museki Sommers, and four stepchildren, Stephanie of Evanston, Marc, Cecily and Chris. A memorial service is set for 3 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Evanston Friends Meeting House, 1010 Greenleaf St.
Mr. Faegre moved to Evanston in 1977, and his art became part of the City’s streetscape in recent years with the outdoor seating he embellished for Wild Tree Café across from the Evanston post office. This month the Unicorn Café is exhibiting some 20 pieces of his distinctive wall art.
Several Midwest spaces celebrating nature boast some fine Faegre pieces. Ryerson Woods has three Faegre watchtowers made of buckthorn. For a sculpture park in Schaumburg, he used local reeds to make long-legged cranes almost hidden amidst the trees.
At Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, he made a watchtower that stands just above the long grass of the Ragdale prairie, some 50 acres that he explored as an artist-resident. Ragdale’s executive director, Sue Tillett, said, “He’d head out on his beat-up bike and come back hours later with the bike laden down with buckthorn. Then he turned this hated, invasive plant into something so good and so strong. He did it for Ragdale. No one asked him to. He just did it.”
He made several other pieces for Ragdale as well, including a giant twig bird that hangs from Lake Forest’s oldest elm tree and a sculpture that sits under the tree.
Tor Faegre favored branches and twigs he could pick up off the ground or branches chopped from cottonwood and willow trees that he said “grew like weeds.” He also made great use of buckthorn, an invasive plant he called “a scourge” and “the kudzu of the Midwest.”
“Using common materials forces the designer to create interest by sheer cleverness,” he wrote in a 2004 article. “You can’t rely on the flashy grain patterns or the knock-out colors of exotic woods. You have to manufacture forms that engage the eye.”
In time, he said, he used “pruning shears and saws more than the planes and chisels from my tool box.” On a new house in northeast Evanston he used both, teaming up with local architect Ellen Galland of Rockwell Associates to install a three-story stair railing with bamboo balusters that he called his best commission yet. Ms. Galland agreed, describing his work as “very sensitive and elegant.”
Since 1990 he had sold his creations at art fairs from Kansas City to Connecticut and to museum shops across the country. He also led workshops and taught classes at the Evanston Art Center, Evanston Township and New Trier High School evening programs, Morton Arboretum and the University of Illinois extension program in Oak Park plus out-of-state gigs at Ox-Bow in Michigan and The Clearing in Wisconsin.
A native of New Hampshire, Mr. Faegre earned a degree in sociology from Roosevelt University in Chicago where he made life-long friends in peace, civil rights and labor movements. He was a co-founder of the now-defunct Solidarity Book Shop and an anti-poetry club. He met his wife in an art class at, appropriately, the Tree Studios in Chicago. A trip they made to Afghanistan resulted in his writing and illustrating “Tents, the Architecture of the Nomads” (1979).
Tor Faegre rode his bike, played mandolin with a Sunday morning group, practiced yoga, worked to restore prairies and, as his wife said, “was always the observer, always had a pad of paper in his hand. Even at the hospital he was drawing.” His last building project was a backyard tree house for the three children of his nephew.