Michael Gustafson – The Joyful Artist


Michael Gustafson is never in stasis. He bores easily. He likes change. He likes problems. OK, maybe, what he really likes is solving problems. It is a joy to him.

And, that is why he is an artist.

Well, one of the reasons.

Michael grew up with a father who could make about anything. In high school in Niles, Illinois, he took shop class in a phenomenally equipped shop. “It was really amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it since,” Michael remembered.

The first piece he made in shop was a kitchen hutch, which won second place in the Illinois state fair. It sat in his mother’s kitchen for years and now is in his home.

After high school, he competed against 400 other students to attend an advanced school for carpenters. He was one of 40 students who were accepted. After two and one half years of study, both in the classroom and on the job, Michael then worked a year as an apprentice carpenter. He then received his union card as a master carpenter.

With his skills and his card, he worked in the building trades, eventually owning his own contracting company in Florida. “We did a lot of remodel…My days were filled with construction problems,” he said with a smile.

After working as a successful contractor, Michael went to work for the government. Proof positive that this man is drawn to problems that he then loves to solve.

He went to classes and became a certified inspector. He was hired as the Senior Trade Inspector for Pinellas Park, Florida, a city of about 50,000. Six months later, he was running the Building Department. Twelve years later, he became the City Manager. “Best place I ever worked. Loved it!” he said emphatically.

Perhaps his love of this job is related to his love of problem solving. He explained, “So many things are coming at you fast in government, and you are doing something different all the time…I am a problem solver, not your typical government person. They could never keep me in the box. We always did things quickly. We did not get bogged down in bureaucracy.” He must have done things well, because he kept the job as City Manager for 12 years.

During this time, Michael and his wife Laurel also began buying and flipping houses. With Michael’s building skills and Laurel’s decorating eye, they did really well. “We’d buy one. Keep it for a year or two, then flip it.”

All this while he and Laurel were working full time and often living in the house they were remodeling. Laurel and Michael seem to thrive on this kinetic lifestyle. Michael admits, “I work at my own pace, but I have a fast pace. I don’t relax much.”

Laurel said, “We just get an itch every two or three years.” When the project is finished, they are ready to move on. Laurel went so far as to say, “I made him promise me we won’t stay in one place forever. We always need a project. We will put our stamp on it.”

This is the attitude that both Michael and Laurel brought to retirement. Michael wanted to retire when things were going well. He knew that he was not going to retire in Pinellas Park. “It’s the worse thing you can do,” he stated. They wanted change.

Their desire for change and Laurel’s brother John Oliver, who lived in Newberry, brought them to the Center of the Universe. A year before they arrived permanently in 2014, they bought an older house in downtown Newberry. It needed a lot of loving care and creativity. That was their first project in Newberry. They put their stamp on it and flipped it.

They then bought a newer house in Newberry, which didn’t need that much work, just lots of painting, tiling the three bathrooms, and completely reinventing the storage building as a guest house. Small projects to these remodel veterans.

This home also allowed Michael to realize a dream. He explained, “When I decided to retire, I decided I wanted a shop…I was going to have a lathe and start playing in the shop…then I would just start making things.”

No sooner was it said than it was done. He fixed up an out building as a shop behind their home and bought a lathe. He started making pens. Had he ever made a pen before? No.

He explained how that problem was solved, “It’s interesting how I did that…After I bought the lathe, I thought that I would like to make pens. There was a customer at the store [where he bought the lathe] that was picking out ‘pen stuff.’ I said to him, ‘What is it that you need to make a pen?’ He [the pen customer] spent some time with me and pointed it all out…I got it.” Michael also depends on You Tube videos to learn a new skill.

Most pen makers buy the square wood “blanks” from which the pen shaft is made. Michael does most of his own. They line a shelf on the wall of his current shop ready for his creative input. No two pens are alike.

What do you do when you have 100 unique pens? You sell them. Michael first began selling his pens in Newberry at Michelle’s. His work is now also available at The Gallery in Newberry.

Michelle Bedenbaugh,, owner of Michelle’s, was “gobsmacked” by Michael and his work. She explained, “He is an extraordinary craftsman and person. His work is of exceptional quality, with great attention to detail…He has the ability to see in his mind what he is crafting will look like. That’s down stream vision!”

Ellen Hunt and her family have been fans of Michael’s work from the beginning. His pens, bowls, pepper mills, everything make wonderful gifts, according to Ellen.

Pens were not enough to keep Michael’s interest. Wooden jewelry was next, then pepper mills, then bowls captured his interest. That interest meant he needed a bigger lathe.

His newest interest is making tables, and he has even ventured into mirrors. Michael’s imagination and craftsmanship can not be captured in just one form. Many of his tables and other larger works are available locally at The Gallery on Caldwell St.

In each of these mediums, Michael enjoys the challenges and problems of the process and especially of the wood itself. He said, “I’m usually looking for the piece of wood that nobody wants to deal with because it has so many problems.”

Figuring out problems is play for Michael. Joyful play. He might know that a piece of wood is going to be a table, but he rarely knows what will hold up these unique pieces of wood. It could be an industrial metal faucet or salvaged wooden columns. Just one more joyful problem to solve.

Locals Christine and Sean Pomeroy have one of his unique tables. “We love the combination of old [the stand} and nature. Michael did a great job of embracing Nature by leaving the unique characteristics of this piece of wood, yet it is a very functional piece of furniture,” they explained.

Despite his prodigious output, Michael said, emphatically, “This is not a business. I do it for fun…It keeps me out of trouble and lets me play and have something to do.”

With a laugh he continued, “Don’t call me and order something. Call me and ask me if I want to do something. Maybe, I will do it.” But, only if he is challenged by it and can have fun in the process. The more problems to solve, the more joyful the work.

Michael Gustafson is never in stasis and that is the secret to his joy.