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Dad's legacy was a cut above

Fred Kleiner, Marion Tenace and Art Kleiner with

On a cloudless Friday morning in mid-May, the random possessions of a Long Island lifetime — old newspapers and magazines, clothing, umbrellas, china and dinnerware, suitcases, footballs, and much, much more! — are arrayed on tables set up in the driveway of Art and Diane Kleiner's split-level.

"Thirty-eight years of living in the same place, you tend to accumulate a lot of stuff," Art observed as a half-dozen bargain hunters picked through the hundreds of items in the Kleiners' yard sale. Like many baby boomers, Art and Diane are downsizing as they prepare to move at the end of the month from Levittown, where they've lived since 1983, to Leland, North Carolina, a suburb of Wilmington. But while it might not have been too hard to part with a couple unopened umbrellas or dinnerware that never made it out of the box, such was not the case when it came to the most cherished heirlooms: The remarkable work of Art's late father, Howard Kleiner — a master woodcarver as well as a man of seemingly boundless creative energy and infectious enthusiasm, exuded in many directions.

The elder Kleiner spent his career as a New York City schoolteacher. The lasting impressions he left, however, were not only in the classroom or the hearts of his family members, but in the whimsical, inventive carvings he created — using little more than a pocketknife — from the time he was a boy until shortly before his death, at age 91, in 2019.

These 13 decorative walking sticks represent some of his best work, which is why they are spread out on a living room table inside the house — away from the yard sale.

These, he says, "demonstrate my dad's ability to create a piece of art out of nothing but a block of wood," says Art. "I mean, just look at them."

Yes, look at them:

This one has a head carved on it that looks like Gandalf, the wizard from "Lord of the Rings." That one is adorned with a checkerboard — each square meticulously delineated. And the stoutest of the walking sticks, at 4-foot tall, is an eclectic, all-American totem pole of sorts, with profiles of a bald eagle, Uncle Sam, the Stars and Stripes, and Santa Claus laid one on top of the other in eight rotating circular sections. It's a Rube Goldberg-meets R. Crumb-meets James Montgomery Flagg creation, where bewhiskered fantasy visages and funny faces share space with proud patriotic images, rendered in an ingenious three-dimensional form.

Howard Kleiner, seen in a family photo, carved
Howard Kleiner's carvings made of almonds sit atop

Above left, Howard Kleiner, seen in a family photo, carved from the time he was a boy until shortly before his death, at age 91, in 2019. At right, Howard Kleiner's carvings made of almonds sit atop a Newsday profile published in 1965. | Photos by Morgan Campbell

Prodigious output

The sticks — which, like most of his work, are made from basswood, the soft timber preferred by woodcarvers — are just a few samples of the elder Kleiner's prodigious output. His work has been attracting attention since at least 1965, when he was a 37-year-old Valley Stream resident (which is also where his three children grew up). In June of that year, Newsday published a story about his woodwork. That piece, written 56 years ago by reporter Alice Murray, spotlighted a series of tiny faces that Kleiner carved in profile on individual almonds. The story — bearing the headline "Teacher's artwork is nutty" — nonetheless reported that Kleiner's canvas was not limited to the drupaceous fruit. "Among the many heads he's carved," wrote Murray, "have been one of Abraham Lincoln, one of an American Indian, and one of a veteran of the Civil War, complete with Union cap, flowing white hair and an impressive mustache."

Over a half a century later, his work is still attracting notice.

"He was original, unusual," said his friend and fellow carver, Ken Miller of St. James. "Very creative." Miller, 89, spent many hours whittling with Kleiner at meetings of the Suffolk County Woodcarvers Guild, a group of enthusiasts who, pre-pandemic, met at the Mount Sinai Senior Center. Many woodcarvers, Miller said, work from photographs or patterns to create realistic images. Not Kleiner. "He would take a piece of wood and just work it from his imagination," he said. "His ideas were really his trademark."

This creativity extended to other areas.

"Letter openers, Christmas decorations, napkin holders," says Art. "There was no limit to what he would create."

"His mind never stopped running," agrees Diane. "He did magic tricks, he created board games, he wrote music."

Born in 1927 in Brooklyn, Howard Kleiner grew up in the Bronx, one of three children of Eastern European immigrants. "They were hardworking people," eldest son Fred says of his grandparents. But as far as the current generation of Kleiners can determine, none of them besides Howard were artists. After graduating from James Madison High School, he attended New York University, where he was training to be a dentist. But when he returned to college after a stint in the Army, he changed his major to English. "He told me he'd lost interest in dentistry," recalls Fred. (Howard never had any formal training in art).

So, Howard Kleiner pivoted from a life of cavities to classrooms, beginning his teaching career in 1952 at PS 120 in Flushing. He started as a fifth-grade classroom teacher, but — as a skilled musician (he played clarinet, saxophone and flute) — he also directed the school band. In 1970, he was appointed PS 120's full-time music teacher. "He also has the distinction of having written the school song," Fred Kleiner says dryly. "And he let us know that many times."

Carvings infused with 'humor'

Howard and his wife, Rita (they were married in 1952), moved from Valley Stream to Coram in 1983, after he retired from teaching. They lived there until May 2019, when they entered assisted living. Even in the final months of his life, he continued to carve. Rita died earlier this year.

"Among the things he insisted on bringing when they moved from their condo in Coram were boxes of wood he planned to use for more carvings," says Art. When Kleiner died, "some of the staff requested carvings to remember him by."

The family also gave Miller a box of his rarely used tools. Kleiner created most of his elaborate carvings with only a pocketknife — which he used fast and furiously. "I carve items that I can finish in a short time," he wrote in an autobiographical sketch for the guild. "I like to put humor into my carvings and enjoy making carvings that have a practical use."

Such as: Bookmarks for his granddaughter Hannah, when she was a child. "She liked to read, and she was an animal lover," says Kleiner's daughter, Marion Tenace, 59, of Ronkonkoma. "So, my dad made her these two bookmarks. One was a dog, was a cat."

Al Trepiccione, president of the Suffolk County Woodcarvers Guild, remembers not only Howard's creations, but his outsized personality. "We would have Show-and-Tell," said Trepiccione, who lives in Lake Grove. "Everybody would get up and present their piece. The combination of the unusual types of carvings that Howie had done and his personality was fantastic. He'd have you laughing while he was showing it to you."

The laughter is stilled, but the remarkable creations remain. Many of the elder Kleiner's estimated 1,000 carvings have been sold — including, in the end, a few walking sticks. Art and his siblings donated the net proceeds for those to children's charities, including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But some will remain with the family.

Along with the powerful memory of their irrepressible father, the most ornate walking sticks and other works from this talented man will be prominently displayed in Art's new home in North Carolina. "They're going to be on the wall of my hobby room," he says.

An appropriate place to honor a man who reminds us that hobbies can rise to art and, when shaped by skilled hands and a powerful imagination, can continue to inspire and delight, long after the artist — and the father — is gone.

Want to carve?

For more information, visit the sites of these Long Island woodcarving clubs:

Title photo: Fred Kleiner, Marion Tenace and Art Kleiner with a plethora of items carved by their father, Howard Kleiner. | Photo by Morgan Campbell

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