Woodcarver Mike Bailey whittles Santas and wood spirits at his workbench in Columbus. The craftsman also carves the old world faces into vintage wooden thread spools for ornaments and in salvaged wood-handled kitchen and garden tools.
Photo by: Luisa Porter
Wooden handles of vintage kitchen or garden gadgets are fair game for Bailey’s wood spirits.
Photo by: Luisa Porter
Bailey’s hand-hewn Santas and other figures are sought-after at events like the annual Tannehill Woodcarvers Show in McCalla, Ala., the Soulé Steam Festival in Meridian and Artisans’ Alley in Columbus
Photo by: Kelly Tippett
December 11, 2010 11:46:00 PM
"A piece of wood doesn''t stand a chance around our house -- we''re either gonna carve it or cook with it," chuckles Mike Bailey.
The pony-tailed artisan is surrounded by a retinue of hand-carved Santas, wood spirits, elves, old men of the sea, angels, even miniature chickens, in a small showroom set up in his home on a secluded lot east of Columbus. Wizened faces in basswood, cedar, cypress and cottonwood bark peer out from the shelves, keeping their secrets.
In the gathering dusk outside, crusty leaves rattle in the cold, on tall trees carved with wood spirit faces. No bad karma here, at the end of this winding dirt road, where the woodcarver and his wife, Debbie, live.
When not working with, of all things, concrete on his day job at Golden Triangle Ready Mix, Bailey is frequently found at his home workbench, outfitted with dozens of tools of the whittler''s trade.
A guitar occupies a corner of the room. A framed, yellowed photograph of his late grandfather, Luther Bailey, at his leather and saddle shop in Stewart, hangs on one wall. Posters of Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker and Howlin'' Wolf keep watch from another.
The former Rock South singer and guitarist grows a wry grin, saying, "In some ways, it''s like still being back in the band, when we''d say, ''He who dies with the most guitars, wins.''" Now a father and grandfather, with a new creative outlet, Bailey admits his perspective has changed
"These days, it''s more like, ''he who has the most gouges and chisels,''" he laughs, referring to the implements of his craft.
It''s no accident Bailey''s old world Santas have a rustic, whimsical visage. Wood spirits are his most-carved subject. For centuries, people have sought out the wisdom of these "lords of the forests." But the elusive legends are only seen when they want to be, and usually appear only to children or the pure of heart.
"Really, if you take Santa out of his robe and hat, he would basically be a wood spirit," smiled the artist.
According to lore, those taking home a wood spirit (or, in this case, a ''spirited'' Santa) are likely to attract good luck and happiness, commodities anyone would wish as the new year nears.
It was only eight years ago that Bailey''s parents brought him a gift that would inspire his art -- an introductory book on woodcarving, a souvenir from their trip to the Smoky Mountains.
"Once I started foolin'' with it, I got consumed," he explained.
In at least one way, working with his hands evoked a touchstone from childhood.
"It really brought back memories of working with my granddaddy growing up, and his leather shop. It used to fascinate me that he could just take a piece of leather and, using patterns on old pieces of cardboard, cut ''em out and later have this beautiful piece of work," shared the whittler. "He taught me a lot about life, about everything."
As his abilities grew, Bailey acquired more books and more skill, experimenting with different woods and unlikely "palettes."
"I''d pick up just about anything. Old wooden spools, old utensils from yard sales, all kinds of pieces of wood. ... Sometimes I''ll pull up, and there''ll be a pile of wood outside my house; people bring me knots and special pieces," he said.
Cedar and cottonwood bark are among his favorites to work with, giving up nature''s unexpected coups once the carving begins.
"You never know when you''re going to get a change in the color, or in the wood. ... The hardest wood I ever worked with was this pine knot I fooled with. You''ve heard that expression ''tough as a pine knot''? Well, they are!" he laughed.
On the road
Bailey and his wife are fixtures now at events like the Soulé Steam Festival in Meridian and shows at Tannehill State Park. He''s been a featured artist at the Columbus Pilgrimage''s Artisans'' Alley since its inception.
He holds membership in respected groups like the Craftsmen''s Guild of Mississippi, the Tannehill Woodcarvers Association and National Woodcarvers Association. He''s done several commissioned pieces and knows his work is in many states, as well as in Italy and the Orient. But the unassuming carver still seems almost surprised, and certainly grateful, to find his efforts gaining recognition.
He hopes someday to open a small shop in front of his home for his and wife Debbie''s craftwork; and he''d like to see an informal woodcarvers club started up to foster other enthusiasts, paying forward some of the gifts he''s realized thanks to others who encouraged him.
Standing near the workbench as evening falls, Bailey''s eyes return to the wall and the photograph of his granddad -- another craftsman who turned raw material into something memorable with his own hands.
"Man, I wish my granddaddy could see ... I know he does, but for him to be here to see it sure would be somethin''."
As the light goes out in the small showroom in Bailey''s home at the edge of the woods, the Santas and the wood spirits -- who are said to be playful -- settle for the night. There are, after all, days before Christmas to seek out the pure at heart.
Editor''s note: More of Mike Bailey''s carvings can be viewed at www.daddio630.etsy.com. Some of his ornaments can be seen at Paper Daisy, 417 Main St., in Columbus. E-mail reaches him at email@example.com, or he can be contacted at 662-327-9185.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.