Richard “R.J.” Wohlman doesn’t describe himself as a woodworker but rather a wood artist.
Wohlman crafts furniture, custom cutting boards and other items from wood and resin in his basement workshop.
Along with creating art from wood, Wohlman is a musician. Wohlman has been playing violin since he was 5 years old. He said his mom was the reason he began playing. She wanted him to play because his great-grandfather also played violin.
Wohlman, 46, currently plays for the Western Piedmont Symphony. Wohlman grew up just outside of Cherokee. He moved to Hickory when he began playing with the symphony.
Wohlman discussed his struggles and passions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Fiddling Wohlmans
We were The Fiddling Wohlmans. I was in the sixth grade when the band started and played with my sisters until I was a junior in high school. I’m seven and five years older than my younger sisters, Kelly Dean Pilarczyk and Kayce Keane. When a little 6-year-old girl has a fiddle in her hands, people are going to stop just to see what’s up, but we could actually play. She could actually play my fiddle. We did a lot of the festivals in different cities, like Bryson City. Western Carolina (University) would have a big festival on Heritage Day, we played out there. We played at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, (now known as the Charlotte Motor Speedway,) we played on TV in Kentucky. We went all over the western part of North Carolina, Tennessee and some of Georgia.
People are also reading…
My great uncle was a senator for the U.S. Assembly and subsequently I got to play for Jim Martin back in the late ‘80s and lots of other senators from North Carolina and representatives. I also played in the well of the North Carolina Senate when I was in either the seventh or eighth grade.
With my sisters, we were kind of professional even though we were a young group. We were getting paid for performances. I consider that to be professional. My youngest sister went to college with like $15,000 that she made on her own as a musician. For years, she saved up her money and had dough for college.
I started playing with the actual symphony when I was a sophomore in college at Appalachian State University. I was 19. I played with them through my senior year, and then auditioned for the Western Piedmont Symphony for their associate concertmaster position. I won that and started with Western Piedmont Symphony in 2001. That’s what kind of brought me here to Hickory.
I took a break from Western Piedmont Symphony around eight years ago and rejoined last year because of the new conductor. Matt Troy is really fantastic. He’s just a good dude. He’s really made me feel a part of my community again, I appreciate that.
I’ve played with several other symphonies. I subbed with North Carolina Symphony. I have played with the Symphony of the Mountains, but mostly I just play with Western Piedmont Symphony. I have a position with the Winston-Salem Symphony, and I’m an associate concertmaster for the Salisbury Symphony.
For 17 years, I was the Hickory High School orchestra director. I decided to stop teaching in 2020.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but teachers don’t get paid very well. I think teachers are treated pretty poorly. I was a part-time teacher. It’s kind of like drinking nonalcoholic beer, all the bad flavor, but none of the good effects. That’s what teaching part-time is.
All I wanted to do was teach and you had to deal with everything else. They didn’t give me any benefits. They didn’t give me squat. I just got a paycheck. It was a pretty dumb way of living for a long time. COVID kind of helped slow my brain down and say, “Hey, what were you doing? This is not a career, this is just a job,” I kept thinking I want to do right by my students, but I have to do right by myself, too.
I stayed in it for so long because my public education experience was not good. I wanted to be better than the teachers I had. I’m severely dyslexic. I didn’t learn that until a month before I graduated high school.
I’d had such a bad experience with teachers. I felt like they were combative. When I taught my students, I tried to do a couple of things. I wanted them to know that I cared about them. And ultimately, I wanted to give them knowledge. I just tried to make it fun, light and enjoyable, which I think I did a pretty good job with that.
I was a high school senior, and I was coaching the Jackson County Swim Team in Sylva. I was the assistant swim coach. One of my student’s dad was a professor at Western Carolina University. He was a psychology professor. He had a student who needed to give out IQ tests, more or less for practice. He asked me if I’d be a guinea pig and I was like, “Sure, let’s do it.” And so this 25-year-old student met up with me at the university’s library and we did the test. A couple of weeks later he called and said something was odd about my test results. He took it up to his professor and his professor said, “Look, you’ve got a very skewed IQ. There are things that you comprehend at the top level, and there are things that you don’t comprehend very well at all.” It made sense. Reading was always a struggle but building and creating always made sense to me. I mean, I even struggle reading music sometimes. I feel like the worst music reader in the orchestra because of my dyslexia.
I watched Norm Abram build things on The New Yankee Workshop. I would watch him build a ridiculous highboy in 30 minutes and thought, “Gosh, that looks like fun. I can do that.” Little did I know that it would take me 30 minutes just to set up my table saw. I liked the process. Being dyslexic, there are certain things that make more sense to me. Woodworking is one of those things. It’s not something where I have to read a book or manual and decipher things. I can look at the pieces and see how they go together.
I’m not necessarily a woodworker. I mean, I do woodworking for sure, but I like to think of myself more as a wood artist. The reason I say that is because I use epoxy resin. Epoxy allows you to use wood that in the past you would have thrown away because you couldn’t do anything with it. The wood that wasn’t square and was all gnarly and funky looking. Epoxy allows us to fill in the holes and you can do that with different colors. I really like mixing the epoxy up and finding new ways of creating boards or tables. I make cutting boards for The Natural Olive in downtown Hickory. The cutting boards sell for $150. I tried to create something really elegant for that shop and I think I accomplished that pretty well.
I try to make the cutting boards match up with certain parts of the year. Last fall, I made some cool university boards with the UNC Chapel Hill and Lenoir-Rhyne University logos. This year, I’m going to make some NFL boards. I’ve got a laser cutter now that allows me to kind of expand my artistic platform.
I’m not doing anything that other people can’t do. I’m no genius when it comes to this stuff. I’m just trying to do stuff that other people aren’t doing.
Making symphony podiums
The first podium I made was for the Winston-Salem Symphony. It was really fun, because I’ve played there. I’ve visited periodically. After four years, I’m really pleased with how well it’s held up. It looks awesome. The stage is black and the red of the podium just pops, it looks really cool. I built another podium for a symphony out in Colorado, the Pikes Peak Philharmonic. I made one a year ago for the Western Piedmont Symphony. And like I said earlier, I like to use the art aspect of woodworking. So, I put their logo, it’s like a diamond shaped soundwave. I put that on the front of the podium and put some LED lights behind it with resins. When the symphony has concerts, they can light it up and have their logo show. They’ll flash different color lights through their logo during rock concerts. That’s kind of fun.