By Mike Schoeffel
Every weekday, it’s easy to know where Gregory Chabolla will be.
For seven hours per day, at least five days a week, he’s hard at work in the woodshop behind the house in Sundance Ranch where he lives with his mother, Michelle, meticulously crafting detailed works of art.
Gregory, you see, is an artist; a woodworking craftsman of the highest order. Though it was never guaranteed he would become one.
It was never even a sure thing that Gregory, 21, would live a normal life at all. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, the prospects weren’t promising.
“The doctors were worried that he might not talk or even dress himself in the mornings” says Michelle. “Of course, this was 20 years ago, though, when our knowledge of autism isn’t what it is today.”
One of things that helped Gregory, his mother theorizes, is that he was incorporated into regular classes while attending high school at Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colorado. That, she says, allowed him to develop social skills and enter into a community where he felt welcomed instead of ostracized.
The woodworking pursuit is a relatively recent development. The Chabollas moved into their current residence a few years ago, and the previous owner of the house just happened to be a woodworker. He took his equipment when he left, leaving an empty building out back just waiting to be filled with imagination. When Gregory decided to take up woodworking, his factory, so to speak, was right there waiting for him.
“It was really sort of strange how that happened,” said Michelle. “But it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
To watch Gregory work is to be in the presence of an artist totally in tune with his project. He sits, hunched over, eyes honed in, humming a tune — most likely, his mother says, from a musical he’s recently seen. Or perhaps a song by the Beatles (his favorite is “Revolution”), Elvis, or Michael Jackson — three of his most beloved artists. He works the thin black needle along the necessary path with knowing precision, turning and shifting the block of wood as necessary, with John, Paul, George and Ringo looking on from a poster taped to the door. On the table beside him are completed projects, including one featuring a cross that reads “Believe.”
He doesn’t take any missteps, or if he does, he corrects them without a trace. It’s the idea of work flow personified, and witnessing it leaves little doubt that Gregory is doing what he was meant to do.
That, he says, brings him a sense of peace and purpose.
“I love doing it,” says Gregory. “It makes me feel proud.”
Gregory started his woodworking career by making crosses — still one of his more popular designs — with help from his friend, Patsy Williams.
Williams, a fellow woodworker, was instrumental in teaching Gregory the basics of the craft, and soon enough Gregory had developed a real aptitude for it. It’s the perfect pastime for an adult with autism because it demands intense focus on a single, detailed task — something that people with the neurodevelopmental disorder often do so well.
As Michelle puts it, “his life-long attention to detail lends itself to the art of intricate woodwork.”
The piece Gegory is working on this particular day is a cross with the words “Faith,” “Hope,” “Trust,” and “Survivor.”
It seems fitting, considering all that Gregory has been through. In addition to being diagnosed with autism, Gregory also lost his father suddenly several years ago. It was tough, Michelle says, but Gregory’s woodworking gift has been a valuable coping mechanism.
“This talent has been such a blessing for us,” said Michelle. “For him to come as far as he has…it’s more than I ever expected.”
At first, woodworking was just a hobby. Soon enough, though, word-of-mouth spread like hot wind across the Texas plains, and Gregory’s pastime turned into a full-time career. Demand became so high that Gregory launched his own website (www.gregorysgifts.com), from which customers can order any number of highly intricate designs. Gregory specializes in crosses and animal puzzles called “woodimals” (animal forms with the name of the animal worked into the piece), but Michelle says he can make “almost anything his customers want.”
Gregory takes his work on the road, too. He annually sets up a booth at the Red Poppy Festival in Georgetown during the spring, the Mustang Heritage Foundation Extreme Mustang Makeover Show in Dallas in September, and the Liberty Hill United Methodist Church Harvest Festival. This year, he had a booth at the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park during Wild West Weekend.
And in October — in what is guaranteed to be a special trip, indeed — Gregory is heading back to his alma mater, Chatfield Senior High School to put his work on display at a fall festival.
“Everyone is just going to light up when they see what he’s done,” said Michelle. “It’s going to be great. Gregory has a lot of friends there.”
After finishing the cross piece he was intently working on, Gregory heads out to the main room of his woodworking shop. He holds one of his creations out in front of him. It reads “Autism Speaks.” And indeed, every time Gregory puts needle to wood, autism does speak — perhaps louder than words ever could.
“Seeing people happy with what I’ve made,” says Gregory. “That makes me feel really good.”