June 2007
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Ken Carter is Hooked on Carving

 
  In only five years, Ken Carter of the Grady community has become a highly respected woodcarver and teacher of the art. As a high school student, he carved simple things such as arrowheads. Today his head and bust figures are extremely detailed and life like. Carter has carved about 30 figures. He has never sold any of his carvings, but has given small carvings to family members and friends as gifts.
By Jaine Treadwell

Ken Carter laughed a deep, robust, throaty chuckle. Not unlike what one would expect of a mountain man.

The sun danced off the steel blade of his carving tool as his hands worked deliberately and surely.

Carter took a long, held breath, put down the tool and wiped his hands on his jeans. He leaned back to survey the work he had done. The expression on his face revealed neither satisfaction nor dissatisfaction with his work.

The carving was beginning to take shape. It would be long hours before Carter could bring the block of basswood to life.

Had it not been for his beard and long ponytail, Carter would have appeared to be the broker that he is, not the artist that he has become.

"Five years," he said. "I’ve been a wood carver for five years."

One man, who had been watching Carter work, raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Mighty impressive work for just five years."

Carter fiddled with the carving tools in his carousel as he talked.

"Wood carving has a lot to do with mechanics," he said. "If you understand mechanics, you can carve. It takes the ability to see a finished project without the aid of blueprints to know what’s coming next and to develop a project on your own."

Others probably recognized that ability in Carter before he recognized it in himself.

"I did a lot of drawing in high school," he said, and added laughing, "I did portraits as a way to meet girls. It worked every time."

At the same time he was painting portraits, young Carter was carving simple things like arrowheads and whittling all kinds of shapes, mainly for amusement.

 
The before and after of Ken Carter’s small carving.  
When marriage and children came along, Carter was too busy making a living and answering the demands for "Daddy, Daddy" to paint or carve.

"I wanted my wife to stay at home with the children," he said. "That was the most important thing to me. I didn’t have time to piddle around."

About five years ago, time was, once again, a little more on Carter’s side. So, he busied himself with making cabinets and functional items like jewelry boxes. Then, as if by fate, he came across a study stick in an art magazine.

"It told you exactly what cuts to make to carve a face," he said.

Carter made all the right cuts and, before he even realized it, he was hooked on carving.

He began to read books on woodcarving, books on how to draw and books on human anatomy. And he carved, learning more and more with each cut into the wood.

His ability to "do portraits" enabled him to see the potential of a block of wood.

"But, I learned quickly that you have to know your subject," he said. "You can’t carve what you don’t know about. For example, to carve a cow, you have to know if a cow’s horns are in front of the ears or behind the ears. You don’t want to carve a cow and have someone ask, ‘Why’d you put the horns there? They are in the wrong place.’ Wood carving is challenging and there’s so much to learn."

Carter combined his learning with his interest in and fascination for the characters of the Old West.

"When I was growing up, every little boy wanted to be a cowboy," he said. "And, we all played cowboys and Indians. I just guess I never got over being a little boy."

That early influence of childhood is evident in Carter’s carvings. Mountain men, Indians and scouts are chief among the pieces that carves and has perfected. What he likes most about those characters is that they are adorned with "relics and trinkets."

"They wore stuff that’s interesting to the eye, that draws attention to them," Carter said. "They are interesting to look at. They are interesting — and challenging — to carve. I like carving Civil War figures for much the same reason. I observe re-enactors and study books to make sure that I get things right– the way they hold and carry their rifles, where their bedroll is placed , above or below the pack. A lot of studying goes into a piece. A lot."

Carter’s favorite carving wood is basswood or linden that comes from Minnesota and Wisconsin. He is also partial to red cedar and to butternut.

"I like carving butternut because you can carve it when it’s green," he said. "It’s so soft that it’s like scooping ice cream."

When Carter sits down in his laundry room, a.k.a. studio, with a block of wood in front of him, he has an idea of what he wants to create.

"Sometimes I use a band saw to rough out the piece," he said. "That means cutting away the waste wood. Then, I start to shape the figure."

The secret to woodcarving is to always carve so that it’s possible to carve deeper.

 
  Woodcarving requires a lot of hand tools. Ken Carter has more than 200 carving tools and he uses every one to create the expressions he wants for his wood characters.
"If you mess up, you want to be able to re-carve," he said. "If you can’t go deeper, then you’ll lose your piece. In the years that I have been carving, I’ve only had to throw away two pieces.

"There aren’t a lot of traditional wood carvers because people are scared of it. But you don’t have to be scared of making cuts. You just have to trust yourself."

Carter said carving a figure in wood is a creation of sorts.

"I enjoy every aspect of carving," he said. "But it’s the expression that is the hardest thing to capture, especially the eyes. And, to have a really good piece, you have to capture the expression of the character."

Carter is very adept at capturing characters in wood. He is an instructor at the Southeast Wood Carvers School in Prattville and also teaches at the Smoky Mountain Wood Carvers School in Tennessee.

He teaches because he doesn’t want woodcarving to become a lost art. And, he believes that the spirit of a wood carver lives in others.

"When I started carving, I didn’t even know how to sharpen a pocket knife," he said. "So, if you have talent adequate enough, you can be a wood carver. It’s challenging and there is so much to learn, but if you really want to learn you can."

Not everyone can reach the level of artistry that Carter had reached but woodcarving can be a fun and worthwhile hobby. And, it’s a way to get away from the real world a while.

Carter took a long, hard look at the mountain man he had created out of wood.

"Sometimes, I wish that I could run away to the mountains," he said. "I would love the freedom of the Old West, of the old times when there were no rules."

But then, Carter retired to his laundry room studio, picked up his carving tools and did what he does best, create characters from a block of wood.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.