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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, November 25, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
A cavity in the horse's chest holds the usual mail that comes
to Cathy Berenberg's Kaneohe house. When she expects
a package, she slings saddlebags across its withers.

Galloping spirit

Kaneohe carver sculpts life
into wood with self-
taught skill

By Cynthia Oi


IF A PROJECT ISN'T CHALLENGING Cathy Berenberg wants absolutely nothing to do with it. If it's monotonous or easy, she'll walk away.

Berenberg is a wood carver, self-styled, self-taught and supremely confident. She's not arrogant, just someone who is sure of herself and her abilities, and so happy to be that way.

"I love problem solving, the creative aspects of it," Berenberg said.

Her creativity at this point manifests itself in fashioning wooden horses.


Bullet What: "Rural Routes: Folk Art Mailboxes of America"
Bullet Where: Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
Bullet When: Through April 13
Bullet Online:


Bullet What: Pacific Handcrafters Guild 25th anniversary Christmas Fair
Bullet When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 4; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 5
Bullet Where: Thomas Square
Bullet Call: 254-6788


Bullet What: "Keiki Christmas Family Day," puppet plays, art projects, story-telling Santa
Bullet When: 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 5
Bullet Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts, across from Thomas Square
Bullet Cost: Free, all galleries will be open
Bullet Call: 532-8700

She is now working on a winged horse, the rockers of a rocking horse and a carousel mount. These and two others she'll put up for sale at the Pacific Handcrafters Guild Christmas Fair next weekend.

But she won't sell the one she has named "Let's Dance," a graceful, white steed that serves as her family's mailbox.

"I love him too much," she said.

"Let's Dance" charmed judges in a nationwide search. The carving was one of five chosen for the "Rural Routes: Folk Art Mailboxes of America" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.


More important to Berenberg is the way her neighborhood embraced her horse. The day after she unveiled it, she found leis draped around its neck.

"Neighbors put them on. It was really sweet. So he's become a part of the neighborhood. People come from I don't know where, with their kids, their friends, to look at the horse. It's gratifying. I made the horse because I wanted to. And to have the community embrace it -- it is just wonderful. It's anatomically correct."

The nonsequitur and rapid-fire sentences are indicators of Berenberg's personality. Her mind seems to be occupied by several subjects on several levels simultaneously.

At 49, she is a small, fit woman. Her 5-foot, 3-inch frame belies the strength in her slim arms and legs. Her wide smile crinkles her nose, puts twinkles in her blue eyes and she often slips into a murmuring chuckle. She looks clean and crisp, a contrast to her tousled blond hair streaked with hints of strawberry.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The first carousel horse that Cathy Berenberg carved still sits in
her garage studio. She won't part with many of her creations.

A closer look reveals the price she pays for her craft. Nicks and tiny gouges freckle her hands; on shins and ankles are fading bruises. She wears them proudly.

"I get hurt a lot, but don't mind that. It comes with the territory."

Berenberg has been carving for a mere three years. As she high-stepped around slabs of wood, tools and unfinished pieces in her workshop -- really the garage of the Kaneohe house she shares with husband Jeff and son Alex -- she detailed in a word how she learned to do what she does: "Books."

She has a master's degree in science and was working on her Ph.D when her husband, an Army doctor, was assigned here 16 years ago.

"That's the one great thing about all that education," she said. "You learn to learn. I know that all the information I need is in a book somewhere. But you have to be resourceful."

That quality she gained from her father and the fact that while growing up in rural Pennsylvania, her family didn't have much money.

"We never had a contractor at our house. If we needed a new roof, my father would put in a new roof.

"But he was kind of a sexist; I was never allowed to do anything like that."

So she learned basic household skills -- plumbing, carpentry, electrical wiring -- from two sets of Time-Life manuals.

"I would read them cover to cover. It was nice because you didn't have to deal with a teacher saying, 'You're a woman, you shouldn't be playing around with a table saw anyway.' "

She used her knowledge to build the fence around her house and her analytic ability to figure out how to make it the way she wanted it. She made her work table and a router table so they would be the right height for her.

Even the door in the fence fits her, much to the discomfort of the tall pool service man. "He's always hitting his head," she said.

In her methodical way, she taught herself how to use different tools.

"Sometimes, I took on a project just because it involved a tool I didn't know how to use and that became my training," Berenberg said.

"When I did the fence, I didn't own a router. So I bought a router and forced myself to learn to use it. It was all hand-held work. I suffered," she chuckled.

"It's kind of a sickness I have, but my attitude is that I have to have a certain level of suffering before I'm allowed to have the really good stuff.

"I didn't allow myself to build a router table with a fence that would have made my life easier until I had done all my routing hand-held. Then I could always appreciate my router table. I could always fall back and say to myself, 'Remember how horrible it was trying to hold a router and how your shoulders would be so sore the next day.'"

It was another book that led her to her current "obsession," as she described it.

"One day I bought a book on how to make a carousel horse. And that was it. It had every element that appealed to me."

But the blueprints and the how-to instructions didn't fit her analysis of how she wanted her horse to turn out.

"It was too small so I exploded the plans. I tried to follow the book, but I decided I didn't like some of the features. I'm an analytic thinker. I like to to decide, OK, I want to carve that horse. Now, how can I do that? And I figure it out myself."

Not that she was always successful.

"Half of the small horses I've carved, the legs have broken and I've had to throw them away," she said.

She used to start a carving with the head, but now begins with the legs because those are the most difficult. Even then, there is danger.

"Once I carved all the legs perfectly and I had the hindquarters looking phenomenally beautiful. Then I did the head and the head broke off. And you just stand there. You can't even speak. You're thinking -- why, why."

The image of horses comes to Berenberg from a childhood in farm country where, while eating breakfast, she'd watch a neighbor's animals corraled in a nearby pasture.

"All carvers, unless you're architectural, have this desire to carve horses because of the difficulty involved. They're majestically beautiful. I don't know any movements that are prettier than those of a horse. And yet the real the challenge is the legs that are so small. The idea is to get this big body that's moving on these tiny little legs."

After carving the legs, the ears, the rump, the fetlocks and the hoofs, hocks, haunches and hindquarters, Berenberg tackles the details.

She makes the bridles and saddles for each horse, learning this skill from a video tape.

The mane and tail are made from real horse tails she gets from a company on the mainland.

"I wash them and put on Aveda creme rinse. I braid them or curl them with a curling iron."

She paints the horses with marine paint.

"That way, if I want to keep them, I can put them outside because there's no more room in the house," she said.

Berenberg hasn't put prices on all the horses she's showing at the fair. One is tagged at $3,000, but she's not sure how much it cost to make. "I know I'm not making a lot of money on it."

Anyway, she said, "I don't carve things to sell. Everything I carve I want. Depending on how badly I want to keep them, the price will go up."

Berenberg mostly buys wood for carving, but has installed a solar kiln on the side of the garage, where she seasons huge pieces scavenged from felled trees.

Although horses are her focus now, she is also working on a glider chair for herself and a carving of a deer, which she'll likely make into a planter.

"I love never making the same thing twice. I have already done that. I need a new, more challenging problem. Each time I do something, I add another element of risk, so that I feel gratified when I've accomplished it."

And the horses?

"Once I carve the perfect horse, I won't carve horses anymore."

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