Sitting on the front steps of the Project of Hope House on College Street in Lewiston on most given days, Keith Waite whittles away at small blocks of wood, surrounded by some of his creations.

“I don’t have an artistic bone in my body,” he said, “but if I start out making a dog, and it doesn’t come out looking like a hippopotamus, I am on the right track.”  

What started as a therapeutic exercise has grown into a way of life for a man who can no longer work construction as he did most of his life.  

Waite grew up in Scarborough and started working at his neighbor’s turkey farm when he was 6 years old.  

“I had jobs all through school and then went into the service,” he said.

He was in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam and didn’t get hurt — even though he was doing extremely dangerous work, but when he returned home to construction jobs, he ran into some trouble.  

“I have been hit by a truck, and fallen off ladders and roofs,” he said. “The last time in ’98, I fell off a roof and broke one arm and nearly tore off the other.”  

He had always managed to get himself back into construction work after the accidents, but this one was just too severe for his aging body.  

His doctor told him that he should start whittling as a form of therapy to get his muscles working again.

“I didn’t think much of it until I was working on leveling a kitchen stool and took off a couple inches from each leg,” he said. “I looked at the pieces and noticed a chess piece nearby. Right there, I took out my utility knife and started to carve. I was familiar and comfortable with the utility knife from working with it all my life, so that’s what I mostly use. I chose to start with the knight. I probably should have started an easier piece. But I didn’t give up.”  

He has a few specially designed wood-carving tools, including a detail knife that he uses for finishing work, but most of the work is done with his generic utility knife.  

He figures he has carved more than 1,500 pieces. His signature piece is a small teddy bear. Many of these figurines have hearts carved and painted on their chests. He’s given out more than 500.

“The kids just love them,” he said. “They even have come back to thank me and said they now have a special place in their homes. It makes me feel good, but I tell them they are meant to be played with, not displayed.”

He feels proud when he goes to a local business or home and sees them behind the counter or on a shelf. He gives away 90 percent of what he makes, but does take orders for canes and walking sticks.  

“Each one is customized to what the person wants.”

Poking her head out the door of the center, Co-Director Jan Wilson has a warm smile and greeting for Keith.

“He is our unofficial greeter,” Wilson said. “He is really passionate about his work, and each piece has such personality. He is a true artist.”   

“I have a few patterns that I use sometimes, but usually I just start with a piece and an idea,” Waite said. “Most of the time, it changes three or four times during the process before I settle on what it will be.”

The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, and he looked up and smiled.

“I just love being outdoors. I have always worked outside, and it is so nice they tolerate me sitting here on their steps.”

What he doesn’t manage to give away during the course of the day, he brings home.  

“My kitchen table looks like a regular barnyard with all the animals laid out on it.”

As he works, a young boy walks up and sits down next to the artist, intrigued with what he is doing. A curious young boy and a construction-worker-turned-artist strike up a conversation. Not only will the youngster walk away with a lesson or two, but the chances are high that he might leave with a souvenir in his pocket.  


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