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Woodcarver displays work, shares techniques at Tanasi

Joe Pilkenton, artist in residence with the Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center, is pictured working on his latest woodcarving creation. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

This past week, the Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center welcomed artists to teach the public about the arts of wood whittling and woodcarving through its Functional Art Ways of Appalachia Program.

On May 14 -16, the public had a chance to see Joe Pilkenton’s latest work and hear about his techniques and love of woodcarving. This is not Pilkenton’s first time carving at the Tanasi Center, as he is the artist responsible for the Tanasi Bison, the beautiful carving that greets visitors before they come through the door.

“There’s usually a lot of research that goes into everything I do,” said Pilkenton. “It all has a story behind it.”

Pilkenton’s interest in wood carving began 10-12 years ago after he collaborated with other volunteers to make the Kingsport Carousel, which took more than nine years to complete. 

“The interesting thing about the carousel, is no one knew how to carve,” Pilkenton said. “All the animals we’ve done are original to the person that carved them and each has a story.”

Of the carousel animals, Pilkenton is responsible for the big white buffalo, whose ability to carry a family of seven he witnessed firsthand, and a pony named Tuscaloosa.

“I did it mainly to pass the time and test myself,” he said about beginning his woodcarving adventures.

With a background in graphic design and illustration, Pilkenton has created everything from paintings, sketchings, and even sculptures, one of which is a three dimensional, half-size clay version of Daniel Boone.

“When you’re an artist, you kind of dabble in everything,” he said. “This is just like drawing, but instead of using a pencil, I’ve got these carving tools. And with this, I don’t have to worry about running out of lead.”

Pilkenton donates all of his artwork and only asks for reimbursement for the cost of materials. He creates his carvings on a large piece of outdoor sign foam that is made specifically for carving purposes because it does not shrink, hold water, or become affected by extreme temperatures.

He begins most of his work with a sketch that he draws and blows up before transferring part of the image. Once completed, he said most of his pieces never look exactly like the sketch because he often sees parts he’d like to change throughout the process.

In order to create the fine, intricate details in his work, he makes many of his own tools and utilizes diamond tipped files or dremel heads. This allows him to carve out details, such as faces or eyes, using a technique he calls shadow carving.

“How I teach people is I teach them to read shadows,” he said. “Shadows are where all the details are … once you learn that you can do about anything you want.”

For many of his pieces, he applies a bronze or golden-tinged finish made out of acrylic paint, which he has his own techniques for applying.

“It’s a combination of how you layer it, the types of brushes I use and the direction of strokes,” he said. “That’s what really brings out the detail.”

Those who visited the Tanasi center while Pilkenton was there could see the progress of his latest work of art, “Daniel Boone Wilderness Road Trip,” a carving of Daniel Boone crossing the Holston River at Long Island where the Wilderness Trail began.

“For those that don’t know much of history, the Wilderness Trail was actually the beginning of the western movement because there were no roads going out west until Boone found a way through the Cumberland Gap.”

Pilkenton intends to display his latest carving of Boone at the Netherland Inn, the same historic site in Kingsport where his sculpture of Boone is currently displayed.

On July 7, his storybook, “Ups and Downs of Merry Go Round,” will debut and the large pages of the book also allow it to serve as an adult coloring book. The plotline of the book follows the activities of carousel animals once the rides are stopped and everyone goes home.

Characters such as buffalo, horses, a wolf, a unicorn, a baby elephant, tiger and flying pigs take on a personality of their own in his storybooks. 

“Once their mood is just right, they come off of their carousel and play games,” said Pilkenton,  who is also working on a new storybook, “Tales from the Wishing Tree,” a continuation of “Ups and Downs of Merry Go Round.”

The book features a wishing tree where young children can hang their wishes before intricately-designed animal characters in the book take the wishes to “four wise guys in the sky.”

“They try to make these wishes come true and, in the meantime, they take a journey and discuss the wishes with the children,” explained Pilkenton. “They realize some wishes aren’t meant to come true … a lot of it is about teaching kids what’s right and what’s wrong. On the journey, they learn a lot about themselves.”

Pilkenton currently teaches at the Carousel Carving Studio and Painting Studio, located at 350 Clinchfield St. in Kingsport.

“I think it’s more gift than talent … I just try hard,” Pilkenton said about his work. “I try to teach people to keep them interested in the art of carving.”