October 20, 2004
Midmorning sun snakes across the cement floor of Arthur Habegger’s garage.
The 81-year-old Mesa man sits in a wheelchair with a worn leather back.
Nearby, a length of alder rests in a lathe, sprinkled with golden wood shavings. Two work stations flank opposite walls of the garage that doubles as an artist’s studio. In one corner, planks of 1-by-4s and assorted lengths of wood have been neatly stacked.
An unfinished cane rests in Habegger’s lap.
"The carvers make fun of me," Habegger says. "I do a lot of carving with this." He holds up a red-handled utility knife he bought at an art store. "I started with this X-Acto," he says, "and I can’t give it up."
Gripping the cane firmly, Habegger sets the knife blade to the wood and applies pressure. His hands shake, then steady, as he slowly gouges down along the intricate, Southwest-inspired design already drawn on the soft wood.
"After I get it dug, it’s a little rough," he says. "I make my own sanding device and sand the groove after I got it carved out."
Habegger can make anything out of wood: Canes, tools, statues of animals, three-dimensional portraits of famous people — like the Suns basketball team he had on display in 1994 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — and even much of the furniture in his house, including the bed that he and LaVaun, his wife of 63 years, sleep on. his brother and mother. The car skidded on ice and slammed into a tree, which folded down into the car. Habegger’s leg was broken in the crash.
"I make all kinds of special stuff," Habegger says, from baseball and animal theme canes to custom pieces, like the cement truck handle he carved on a cane for a man who owned 40 cement mixers. On average, it takes Habegger two to three weeks to finish a cane. He prices most of his canes between $75 and $200, but custom orders can run higher.
Habegger started painting and carving animals and birds after his doctors told him to take early retirement at age 62 because of failing health.
In 1938 Habegger was in a severe car crash that took the life of his father and injured his leg.
But when doctors removed the cast, they discovered the bone had healed improperly. The doctors were forced to rebreak the leg.
But the procedure went wrong.
"They ruined the circulation in my leg," Habegger says. For 13 years, Habegger put up with severe pain and open sores on his bad leg until, after seeing "about a hundred doctors," he decided to have it amputated.
For many years Habegger wore a prosthetic leg and used a cane on and off. Now his remaining knee is so weak, he’s given up on the prosthesis and gets around in wheelchairs.
"I’m glad I can paint. It keeps me out of trouble," he says.
And brings him recognition. Habegger says he has canes at a gallery in Scottsdale, three paintings at the Dobson Ranch Branch Library in Mesa, and three of his political-themed canes — depicting George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore — are included in the "Democracy in America: Political Satire Then and Now" exhibit through Nov. 19 at Arizona State University’s Art Museum.
Habegger tried to carve a John Kerry cane for the ASU show, but never completed it.
"I wasn’t satisfied," he said.
Despite his gallery success, Habegger makes most of his sales the old-fashioned way — by word-of-mouth. Habegger sells canes to people he meets while walking his dog Snickers around Dobson Lake, near his Mesa home, passing out business cards and wooden toaster tongs embossed with his phone number. A lot of his buyers are from other states, staying at a nearby hotel.
"I have canes in probably 25 states," Habegger says. Many of the members of his church also own canes.
Habegger’s health continues to deteriorate: After losing a leg and suffering two aneurysms and open-heart surgery to replace his aorta, he now needs an artificial valve in his heart. But the doctors won’t operate after all he’s been through.
"They say I won’t make it off the table," Habegger says. He’s not arguing with them. "I’d rather whittle awhile yet," he says.
Contact the artist
Art by Art, (480) 838-8477