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Wood turners sprout art from a wooden block
Soren Berger guides his lathe as he turns wood during a demonstration at the Southern States Woodturning Symposium at the Georgia Mountains Center.

If you missed him Sunday at the Southern States Woodturning Symposium in Gainesville, you always could sign up for a personalized course suited to your skill level and interest.

Of course, that would mean a trip to Soren Berger's home in Christchurch, New Zealand, where, according to his Web site, tutoring falls in between walks to the beach, a stay in his rustic cottage and a meal featuring his famous Swedish meatballs.

Odds are high, however, that you could catch him in the U.S., as the 65-year-old craftsman travels abroad yearly to teach and show off his work.

Berger, who traded in the corporate workplace about 30 years ago for his workshop close to New Brighton Beach, is at home wherever there's a lathe and some wood.

"The most important thing is having fun and that you're growing in your skills, rather than meticulously following a recipe," the Swedish native told a group attending a workshop at the symposium, which was held last Friday through noon Sunday at the Georgia Mountains Center.

Berger was one of 10 demonstrators at the symposium, traveling the longest to reach Gainesville, but there were others hailing from such places as Colorado and North Carolina.

Nearly 300 people signed up to attend the workshops and donate wooden pieces to an "instant gallery" set up in the Mountains Center lobby, said Marsha Barnes of Murphy, N.C., and secretary/registrar for the annual event.

"With the recession going on, I'm very surprised," Barnes said. "But people find a way when they love their craft."

Willard Baxter of southeast Hall started the symposium in 2001 as an educational enterprise for fellow wood turners.

The event started with five clubs and now comprises seven throughout the Southeast, including Chattahoochee Woodturners in Gainesville, said Barnes, whose late husband quit work in 1993 and began the hobby.

In addition to demonstrations, the event also featured vendors selling items from wood to tools and accessories.

Symposium participants also attend a banquet and an auction of the donated items, with proceeds funding scholarships to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Barnes said Saturday night's haul was $7,150.

One member from each of the clubs serves on a symposium board, with Mike Sewell representing Chattahoochee Woodturners.

Sewell, a retired DeKalb County firefighter, has worked with wood for years, as far back as high school, but he didn't get involved with turning wood until he met Baxter at Lakewood Baptist Church in North Hall.

"He got me into going to the club meetings," he said of Baxter, who founded the Chattahoochee club. "It was just one of those things you get hooked on."

Over the years, he has pulled together an array of tools.

"I just like working with wood; it doesn't have to be wood turning," Sewell said. "It can be cabinetry, furniture, anything. I just like the uniqueness or beauty of wood."

Baxter died several years ago, but the club still meets the second Tuesday of every month at his home in the Belmont community, Sewell said.

"Miss Sarah (Baxter's widow) just lets us keep on coming (to her house)," he added.

Despite his passion for wood, Sewell wasn't huddled over a lathe Sunday morning. Instead, he was working behind the scenes.

"We all kind of rotate around operating cameras (at the demonstration sites)," he said.

Berger, on the other hand, had his work area set in one corner of the Mountains Center arena. He drew a crowd of about 30 people at one workshop, their eyes fixed on his hands or a TV monitor that showed him at work.

"Wood turning gives you a nice journey and, every now and then, a nice piece," he told the group as he used the lathe to chip away at and carefully form a scoop.

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