Artist Spotlight: Of Wood and Wisdom

Jim carving

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Chain-saw carver’s quirky imagination and country wit spawn fanciful artwork and colorful sayings.

by OLIVIA GRIDER

Anyone who tries his hand at journalism learns pretty quickly there are two types of difficult interviews. In one, the interviewee is so conscious everything he’s saying could end up in print that he’s rendered virtually speechless. (My first reporting job often placed me in standoff-like situations with a small-town mayor who suffered from this affliction. Coaxing a complete sentence out of him was excruciating. He would begin, then pause, wave his hand and say, “No, scratch that. I don’t want to say it like that.”)

Then there are people like Jim Marbutt, who deliver a constant stream of colorful, witty phrases, leaving you scrambling to take down every word.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Of Berryton, Ga., where he was raised and now lives, Marbutt says, “It’s not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there.”

His stance on technology is unapologetic, yet tinged with the humble, self-deprecating humor that is a hallmark his personality: “Online is when the bass took the hook and a website is a cold, dark place in the corner of the barn. A hard drive is when you’re doin’ 90 mph down a dirt road with a trunk full of moonshine and the law on your tail. That’s the sum total of my technical knowledge. I’m just a little bit country.”

Other adages reflect a laid-back wisdom. “Art is like a wild horse,” he says. “It usually comes to you at a young age and invites you to ride. You can’t tame the horse or control the horse. You just gotta let the horse take you where it’s going. And if you do that, it will be an awesome adventure.”

Marbutt says he doesn’t try to invent sayings like this; they just come to him. “My mind just kind of works that way,” he says. “It concerns me sometimes.”

The wooden figures and creatures Marbutt carves using a chain saw come from a similarly mysterious and fanciful place. “It’s a partnership with the wood,” says 49-year-old Marbutt, who has been an artist most of his life and took up chain-saw carving in his early 20s. “There are artistic, creative concerns and practical concerns. I basically take all that into consideration, let God inspire me and cut away everything from that wood that doesn’t fit the picture in my mind.”

Marbutt’s carvings include animals of all kinds – squirrels, owls, frogs, fish, bears, bobcats, camels, horses, rabbits, raccoons, penguins and alligators – along with “wood spirits,” totem poles, Native Americans, Santa Clauses and other bearded faces, plant stands and larger projects like archways and the 14-foot tree with a giant salmon carved into it that he fashioned for a Michigan fishing resort. Depending on size and complexity, carvings can take as little as 20 minutes or as long as several days.

“I know there’s something I haven’t carved over the years, but I can’t think of anything right now,” he says while seated at a table at Big Mill Co. – Artisans & Antiques in Fort Payne, Ala., where he’s taking a break from setting up a display of his work. “I’ve carved ugly people, handsome people and hillbillies… I don’t know anything about those, though.”

Accompanying Marbutt is Cindy Harper, his new business partner and fellow artist. Harper, also 49, joined Marbutt about six months ago, when he was looking for a place to do his carvings and she was looking for a job. Harper offered to let Marbutt use the barn on her property and, with Marbutt’s encouragement, soon learned she was good at painting and finishing carvings – tasks Marbutt never liked.

With sand paper and minimal use of power grinders, Harper smooths the carvings, then adds color with acrylic paints and stains before sealing the wood with polyurethane. “I just look at them [the carvings], and I paint,” she says. “I enjoy it more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s really captured me.”

Both Harper and Marbutt have roots in folk art, though neither has any formal training.

Jim Marbutt carves a plethora of creatures, people and objects that Cindy Harper finishes and paints.

Harper’s paternal grandfather, “Mule” Harper, was a painter and craftsman who built wooden items like bread boxes in addition to being a barber, justice of the peace and sheriff in Rockmart, Ga.

The grandfather Marbutt never met (he died in 1947) was a painter, guitar player, songwriter and drifter of Choctaw and Irish descent.

From the age of 6, Marbutt was drawing and carving. His oldest drawing is of a Mexican bandito leading a donkey through a desert dotted with saguaro cactuses (he has no idea where the image came from), and his first carvings were nest eggs. (For anyone else ignorant of the more practical origin of the “Whatcomes- first-the-chicken-or-the-egg?” question, a chicken usually won’t lay an egg in a nest if an egg isn’t already there.) He began seriously trying to carve images when he was 18.

“All I ever wanted to do was be an artist and I’ve known that since I was old enough to remember anything,” Marbutt says. But he didn’t follow any beaten path for reaching his goal. Always “a little bit of a gypsy,” he tried clay and other mediums as he traveled around the country.

“If I’ve ever had a plan, I never knew it,” Marbutt says. “They say your medium finds you; you don’t find it.”

And that’s what happened with him. He had settled into hand carving, but the slow process often failed to hold his attention. Then he met l.D. Cooper, a chain-saw artist who introduced him to the carving style at his shop in Jamestown, Tenn., and took him under his wing.

“L.D. took a shine to Jim,” Harper says. “He ran off most people.”

Before he left their first meeting, Marbutt says Cooper told him, “‘Boy, you can do this. Just get you a saw and lay with it.’”

Marbutt found he could use the chain saw the same way he used hand-carving tools, but with greater speed and creative control. He trained off and on with Cooper for four years – hanging out in Jamestown till his money ran out, then going home to work awhile before returning to Cooper’s shop.

Marbutt began to sell his work, and before long he was training others and travelling to attend art shows and perform demonstrations. He’s done demonstrations for public television and for the grand opening of the University of Georgia’s art wing. A video of him creating a centerpiece for a Cave Spring, Ga., park can be viewed on YouTube; just search his name. For six years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Marbutt taught three-day workshops at the Smoky Mountain School of Woodcarving.

When Marbutt visited Cooper (who he describes as an “old mountain codger,” but says he can only call him that because he’s one, too) two years ago, he says the older man took him aside and said, “‘Boy, I’m proud of you.’ And that’s the biggest compliment I’ve had in these 30 years.”

Marbutt took a break from traveling in the mid-1990s and settled down to a shop in Summerville, Ga. More recently he had a shop in Mentone, Ala., but the recession took a toll on sales. A self-described phoenix, “always rising from the ashes,” he’s producing more work than ever now, with Harper’s help, and is back on the road part of each week. They create as many pieces as they can, then load them onto a truck and travel around the Southeast to shops where they wholesale their work. By the time they return, most of the pieces are gone.

Harper says it’s a win-win scenario for everyone involved. re-selling the pieces helps shop owners’ businesses, she and Marbutt get recognition and final customers enjoy their purchases. “It’s rewarding,” she says. “It’s like a chain. It doesn’t end with us.”

Marbutt and Harper use a variety of wood for their carvings. Almost any medium hardwood will do, Marbutt says. “Some people say there’s hardwood and soft wood, but there’s medium hardwood, too,” he says. examples include cedar, poplar, oak, hackberry, walnut and wild cherry.

Marbutt doesn’t believe in cutting down trees, and that’s been his policy throughout his career. Instead, he uses trees that have fallen in storms or have to be removed because they’re too close to power lines. “I don’t fall trees,” he says. “There are too many already down. We take them for granted because they just stand there. But without them, we’re pretty much done for as a planet.”

Chain-saw art has gained popularity during the past decade and is one of the fastest growing art forms, Harper says.

Marbutt says he is old in the profession, and his generation is the first to share its secrets. Because previous generations wouldn’t, the whole art form was living and dying as they did. Now chain-saw carvers give interested young people a foundation in the art by teaching workshops, writing books and making videos, Marbutt says.

When asked what sets their work apart, Harper and Marbutt say it’s an effort to make each piece special and an almost obsessive determination to get every detail right. “I will not stop till it’s there in my mind,” Harper says. “And Jim is the same way. If he sees a glitch in his carving, he’s got to fix it.” “I always say I do this because I’m too lazy to get a real job,” Marbutt says. “But that ain’t true. I work real hard.”

At this point, he throws out one more verbal gem I can’t resist catching – because, if you can’t tell already, of the two types of difficult interviews, this kind is infinitely preferable; an enjoyable challenge, if you will. “What brought me to the dance was the art,” Marbutt says. “And I try to stay true to that. No two pieces are the same. You can’t tie a leash around art’s neck and lead it around.”

In addition to selling to shops, Marbutt and Harper also create custom pieces on commission. Reach them at 706-331-7359.

Where to find Marbutt and Harper’s work:

  • BIg MIll Co. – artisans & antiques in Fort Payne, Ala.
  • Crossroads Trading Company in Mentone, Ala.
  • Foster’s MIll store near Cave Spring, Ga.
  • North GeorgIa FurnIture in Ellijay, Ga.
  • EllIjay MarKetplaCe in Ellijay, Ga.
  • Sycamore CrossIng in Blue Ridge, Ga.
  • Retail prices are usually about $100 per foot.
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