The shelves in Ivan “John” Bambic’s basement are lined with unique characters carved out of wood: butchers, carpenters, shepherds, even a red-horned devil grabbing the tongue of an overly-talkative spouse. Send a breeze in their direction (by blowing or turning a shop vac in reverse) and the characters come to life. They’re whirligigs, wind-powered carvings that seem to come to life, and John has been carving them for decades.
“Everybody has some hobby,” Bambic said. “Knife and saw … that’s all I need. A lot of paint.”
The characters Bambic carves are inspired by his childhood in the then-Yugoslavian nation of Slovenia. There, Bambic’s family were farmers.
“We had a pretty big farm for there … not like America,” Bambic said. “We had three, four horses and about five cows. A lot of pigs, sometimes 100 pigs … A lot of work, but no money.”
In the early 1940s, war broke out in Slovenia between loyalists and communist-led partisans. Bambic, then 19, was drafted.
“One day I go to the army for four years, fighting against the communists,” Bambic remembered. “Then, Russians came to help the communists, and we must go away from there. It was a hard time. When I was 19 years old, I was the last time at my house. I never saw any more (of) my parents.”
After the war, Bambic spent four years living in a displaced persons camp in Austria. While there, he met a woman named Mary. The two married, and in 1950 they moved to Milwaukee. Once in the United States, Bambic found work at Pfister & Vogel, a leather company in Milwaukee.
“I worked 32 years there … never missed a day of work,” Bambic said. “Where I (was) working, you don’t hear English … just Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, any language but English.”
In the 1960s, Slovenians living in Wisconsin set out to build their own park near Wind Lake in Racine County. As they cleared the brush, Bambic found inspiration.
“At Wind Lake was a big linden tree, and I cut it down, and I remembered from the old country, one guy made a cut from a linden tree,” Bambic said. “I took a piece home, of this tree.”
Although he had no training, Bambic began carving the wood, making noisemakers and whirligigs like those he remembered from Slovenia. There, they were used to scare birds away from crops.
“First one, I made a guy who’s sawing wood,” Bambic said, adding that many of the characters and scenes in his carvings come from childhood memories. “It’s all from the head, you know. Blacksmith was across the street. I was there, I see him. Butcher … I worked there by the butcher shop.”
Bambic has carved hundreds of whirligigs, often donating them to fundraisers or giving them as gifts to his children and grandchildren. In 1992, he returned to Slovenia for the first time in almost half a century.
“Now I got to take it easy,” Bambic said. “I’m 92 years old … don’t go so fast anymore like I used to.”