Standing over a workbench in his Huntingdon Valley studio, Walter Deuschle shaves a wine cork with a Swiss Army knife. He patiently chips away, making small slices until the cork takes the hourglass shape of a castle balustrade.
“Work like this is what keeps you young,” says the 90-year-old retired chef-turned-artist. "It engages your hands but also your mind,”
Deuschle’s creative output is prolific. In the last 15 years, he’s created dozens of cork sculptures. He says it’s a form of meditation. His latest project — completed in November, after nearly two and a half years of work — is a 40-inch-high, 56-inch-wide replica of the Cinderella Castle in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Constructed from more than 7,000 all-natural corks, the result showcases three stories of ornate details: towering turrets, elaborate stairways, and an entryway with a patterned floor. Lighting strategically wired into the castle illuminates its elegant spires and interior walls, decorated with hand-painted sheets of Plexiglas that resemble stained glass. Windows in the castle provide glimpses of elements that Deuschle tucked inside — images of Cinderella, the Seven Dwarfs, and Mickey Mouse (who turned 90 this year, a few months after Deuschle).
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This is Deuschle’s most complex cork project to date. He drew inspiration from his admiration of Walt Disney and the immersive world the illustrator and entrepreneur created.
“I like the concept of Disney World, where people go and enjoy themselves. The adults become children, and the children just eat it all up,” says Deuschle. “Walt Disney had a vision that goes beyond our comprehension, and I simply wanted to create something with it that I could share with others.”
“He grew up during the second World War,” says Deuschle’s wife, Mary. “There was no childhood for him like we have here, and my thinking is, this is part of what he missed. It’s also likely why Mickey Mouse remains such an icon for him. He didn’t have the chances and experiences that kids have today.”
Deuschle came to Philadelphia in 1956 from Stuttgart, Germany, to work as a chef for the company that became Aramark. He moved up the ladder, then managed a country club before retiring 25 years ago. He picked up the cork-carving hobby in retirement and plans to continue for as long as he’s able.
“I get fidgety,” he says. His studio — decorated with his floor-to-ceiling cork wall hangings and oil paintings — attests to that.
The cork Cinderella Castle is not Deuschle’s first foray into recreating the Magic Kingdom’s most recognizable structure. More than 20 years ago, after he took a trip to Disney World with his 4-year-old granddaughter, he crafted a castle out of sugar, which felt like a natural medium to the chef.
But the image of the castle stayed with him even after that. “Several years ago, it just hit me,” Deuschle says. “I woke up and realized I should do it again with corks.”
Deuschle’s initial cork collection had nothing to do with art or architecture. He had been collecting corks for local Boy Scouts, who used them to make trivets. When the scouts discontinued that activity, he was left with hundreds of the bottle stoppers. Rather than toss them in the trash, he started turning them into art, adding them to paintings, wood sculptures, and other artistic endeavors.
“I enjoy painting, but for me, painting is copying. You put your personal feelings in there, but with cork work, it’s this completely adventurous experience,” Deuschle says. “It’s something I do without guidance.
As for constructing the castle, his only template came from a photo. He drew a loose blueprint on paper, then began laying out the foundation, informed only by intuition and past creative projects, including other cork buildings.
Deuschle sticks to a modest toolkit: his Swiss Army knife, an 8-inch carving knife, a butcher knife, and some sandpaper. Elmer’s glue holds everything together.
“I go through quite a few gallons of it,” he says as he transfers glue from an industrial-size container into a standard squeeze bottle.
The 7,300 corks used to construct the castle came gratis, by way of wine-enthusiast friends and restaurants that Deuschle and his wife frequent. He counts every one that comes in; with thousands still in storage, a deep inventory remains for his next project.
“It becomes a satisfaction to complete something like this,” Deuschle says.
“At your young age,” his wife chimes in.
As for what’s next, Deuschle already has a new cork project in mind but wishes to keep it secret until the idea comes to fruition. In the meantime, he plans to show the Cinderella Castle replica at several locations yet to be determined. If it’s meant to be, he says, that list will include Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
“Disney reached out about the sugar [castle] when I first created that, but it was just too fragile to transport,” says a calm and humble Deuschle. “This one is far more structurally stable, so we’ll see.”