There aren't that many handmade crafts at street fairs, not like there used to be. That's part of the reason why Steven Murawski's handcraft birdhouses stand out so much.
The colorful, well-made birdhouses, fashioned entirely by hand by Murawski in his Sewaren basement, with the design of each one carefully planned and hand painted by his wife, Karen, and daughter, Amanda, would attract attention in any setting.
But these aren't just decorative items, or homes for feathered friends, though they are all that.
Crafting the birdhouses helped save Murawski's life.
"It takes quite a bit of time to make them, but then, I have all the time in the world," said Murawski, who recently exhibited and sold dozens of the birdhouses this year at the recent St. James Fair.
To look at Murawski, a sturdy, nice-looking man in his middle-50s, you'd never know he's survived a heart attack, a stroke, and has had a heart and kidney transplant. He looks like the picture of health.
And he is, insofar as he keeps busy, as he says, by fashioning birdhouses.
It was after the heart attack and the transplants, that he came home and said, "I couldn't work anymore. I needed something to do. The birdhouses were perfect for me."
All this happened several years ago. Murawski had had his own construction business and did well until the boom times faded and he took on a temporary job as a long distance trucker to make ends meet.
Back then, he had begun fiddling around with woodworking, and found he enjoyed making birdhouses.
"I put them out in our hard, and then I just gave them away," Murawski said.
Then came the heart attack, the transplants, a stroke and 7 operations. Murawski says with no hint of irony, "I was in pretty bad shape."
Karen, his wife, had been a nurse at Raritan Bay Medical Center for over 30 years. She knew he needed something to keep his mind occupied.
It was she and her friends, some of whom operated booths at the St. James Fair, who suggested he try to sell some of them.
That started a family business.
"It's a family thing. We all do it together," Karen said. After all her husband had gone through, "it was traumatic for everyone. This was something we could all do."
Murawksi says he had memory problems because of the stroke, but you'd never know it.
Karen said he suffers from repeated headaches, so he only has to do as much birdhouse crafting as he feels capable of, and then he can go upstairs and take a rest.
What's interesting is how popular Murawski's birdhouses have become.
"We sold about 35 this year" at the fair, he said. "It was better than we expected."
Karen and daughter Amanda, one of their three adult children, collaborated on the decoration of the birdhouse design, and all three of them help with the painting.
Murawski works on them all year for the St. James Fair, the only place he sells them. But that might be changing; Karen said that several of her colleagues, after they saw the fine work that goes into the folk art pieces, have purchased them at the hospital where she's a nurse.
The prices for all the work are phenomenal: $13 for the small birdhouses, and $20 for the larger "two hole" model. The Murawskis are also starting to take custom orders for the hand-crafted pieces.
It all works well for the tight-knit family.
"We sit and brainstorm about what to create," Murawski said. "It's fun and creative for all of us."
To see more designs and order a birdhouse, call Steven Murawksi at 732-636-6024.