Carving Out His Niche

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Sometimes you don’t choose your passion in life, but rather your passion chooses you. This is what happened to Jim Bailey. He has been carving since he was a boy sitting under a willow tree with his father. However, over the last 25 years he has gotten serious about it, real serious.

“It’s just something that comes natural to me,” Jim says. “God gave me a great gift, all that I have to do is use it and let the creativity flow.”

That is exactly what he does. He will carve almost anything but foremost on his list are walking sticks, letter openers and the like. He has the unique gift of being able to look at a stick, a plain piece of wood, and see something in it. But although he sees the image, he is never sure how the finished piece will look. The only thing for certain is that most all his creations will be 3-D when done.

“It’s just another gift I was given, “ he smiles, “I can take a picture and when I carve it into the wood, it develops into a 3-D image.”

The art of carving started 100s of years ago. All the shepherds in Biblical times have their faithful walking sticks while tending their flock. Jim surmises that they probably got bored spending night and day in the pasture and started carving their walking sticks. He looks for ironwood, oak and elm to use for his pieces. They have to be the durable woods so he can bend them to suit his needs.

It is quite a detailed process to create one of these masterpieces. First, the wood has to dry for a couple years before he can work on it. He waxes the tops and bottoms so they don’t split or crack. After the wood is cured, it must be steamed to make it pliable so he can bend it to suit his needs. A wallpaper steamer hooked to a PVC pipe makes the perfect steamer because he can move it during the 6 to 8 hours it takes to make the wood flexible. At this point he has only a small window, a matter of minutes, to bend it.

Then the “stick dressing,” as the actual carving is referred to, begins. Jim likes his art to look authentic so he strips the bark off the bottom and leaves it at the top where he will be carving. Then the details start to emerge.

“I use a Dremel tool with various bits to make the designs,” Jim explains. “I start with a basic design and then the image usually takes me further into the wood until I end up with a very intricate art piece. Then I use a wood burner to make the shadows and give the design depth.”

Even with that said, Jim is being humble. His designs are so complex that you can look at them time and again and each time you notice new detail. One piece of continuity that is evident in all his work is the spiral. He uses a grinder for a lathe to put swirls somewhere on each piece that he carves; it is his signature.

So, what is the driving force behind all his carving? “It’s unique,”  Jim explains. “It’s not that it is a dying art, it’s just that there aren’t many who do it. I think that is what makes it appeal to me.”

He is also a perfectionist, always tweaking and trying to make it better. Even after he gives a stick away and sees it again he wants to ask for it back so he can improve on it. That’s just in his nature, as is the giving away. Although he is not against selling his art form, he gets more satisfaction from giving them away. “I love to see the expressions on people’s faces when I give them one of my carvings.”

Jim will carve any design on anything. All people need do is ask him. He has done chain saw carvings and carved wizards out of deer horns before. I was blessed to receive a letter opener with the postal eagle carved on in (since I work for the Post Office).

Though there is such talent in creating his walking sticks, perhaps his real talent lies in the mega-detailed relief carvings that he creates. For these, he starts with a slab of wood and keeps carving layer on top of layer, giving it several tiers of depth. The slab is usually no more than two inches thick. Then each layer goes a quarter of an inch deeper, giving it the depth. It is not unusual to have nine different layers, perhaps starting with a deer in the foreground and ending with a mountain scene with a row of pine trees in the distance so it gives the impression of actually walking into the woods.

The newest project on the horizon is a mantel for his wife Chantelle. When finished, it will portray all different kinds of wildlife. This comes as no surprise since he is an avid hunter and fisherman. I have a hunch, though, that this carving will take considerably longer than the usual ten hours to do a walking stick.

Also on his to-do list is carving a whole deer horn. “Every buck is different and every rack is unique. When I start carving, the particular rack will dictate what it will be in the end. It will be a surprise to me too,” Jim laughs.

He is in tune with nature and a gentle soul and these traits are evident in each piece he carves. “Everyone has a choice,” he adds. “You can see the good in your life or you can see the bad. Too many make the wrong choice and are never happy.”

At some point each day Jim and Chantelle tell each other “RTSTR.” Nope, no secret code, just a gentle reminder to “Remember to smell the roses” each day. These aren’t just words, but he and Chantelle live by this motto every day.

We all could have a better day if we would live in the positive. If you need a little reminder each day, maybe you should own one of Jim’s carvings because each one is a reflection of the gentle touch of this gentle man.

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