By hand, by heart: Working with wood seals bond between father and son

June 17, 2011 4:16:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


As the afternoon waned, George Dyson Sr. sat in the softening light, rhythmically burnishing the handle of a wooden spoon he made years ago -- before the heart attacks, before the strokes. With each methodic pass of wood on wood, the deep, umber-colored bois d''arc handle released a glow, preening in the hands of its maker.  


"Wood is like people; no two pieces are alike," the grizzled philosopher said, focused on the task. Then, pausing, "I''ve never accepted the term ''artist.'' My son, he''s got a natural gift. ... I was just a tenacious craftsman." 


As reluctant as the 64-year-old is to accept praise, he and his son, George Dyson Jr., are both known for their fine woodworking skills. Their affinity for one of the earth''s most elemental mediums traces back through the generations who built Treehaven -- the family homeplace on Lake Norris Road in Lowndes County -- and much of the furniture that filled it.  


Raised on a dairy farm, George Sr. learned an old-fashioned work ethic early. If you needed something, you made it, or did without. 


"I was taught a philosophy of, if you''re shoveling manure, you be the best manure shoveler you can be," he stated plainly.  


George Jr., just in from a long day of custom woodwork on a home with his employer, Darwin Holliman Construction, nodded in agreement. He''s heard his daddy say this before; the lesson has not been lost on him.  


The elder Dyson continued, "My mother instilled in me that nothing is impossible. Improbable maybe, but not impossible." 




By the spoonful 


George Sr. first tried his hand at spoon-making as a young teen, because he wanted to "give something meaningful" as gifts at Christmas, when extra funds were hard to come by. 


Over time, the spoon craft expanded, ranging from petite, finely-honed seasoning and sauté spoons to ladles more than 3 feet in length, up to the job of any hearty Brunswick stew. 


"I started out with the white, pretty woods; then it dawned on me that bois d''arc -- osage orange -- would be a permanent spoon that could be passed down from generation to generation," he explained. "Most people think of it as a tough wood to work with, but I was hanging steel at that time, and I just thought of it as steel." 


The burnished natural finish of each spoon made of osage orange surprises the tree''s detractors, many of whom have lost tractor tires to its woody thorns. 


"That finish is a gift from God that man can''t recreate," said George Sr., who quietly added, "I always felt closest to God when working with wood." 




Passing it on 


As an adult, the elder George worked on countless building projects, was in demand as a custom furniture maker, and became a licensed plumber, as well. 


In his down time, the patient artisan began making unique knives. His first was hewn with hatchet and gouges, completely by hand.  


George Jr., now 40, smiled, recalling, "I remember as a kid sitting on the front steps of the house, with Daddy filing and me sanding. He''d work on the blade, and I''d work on the handle. ... He didn''t really coach; he more or less just let me be around." 


"He absorbed it," his father interjected, referring to his son''s talents. "I never said, ''OK, son, here''s how you do it.''" 


They both attribute some of their creative capacity to a shared diagnosis of ADD, attention deficit disorder. 


Young George offered, "I think I took to woodworking so well because of the focus of it. It sparks something inside of you; it''s what can really take an artist into another class as far as their focus and their drive and creativity." 


His father, who studied to be a counselor and has a heart for children, uses every opportunity he gets to assure youngsters with ADD "how special they really are." 




On the pow wow trail 


In the late 1990s, the Dysons starting attending craft shows. In 2003, they took the plunge, staying on the road for several months at a time with their spoons, bowls, knives and George Jr.''s beadwork jewelry. They largely followed the Native American pow wow circuit, from the National Muzzleloaders Shoot in Indiana in mid-June to events in Ocala, Fla. They made a point of being home for Columbus'' Market Street Festival and West Point''s Prairie Arts Festival. 


It was at a similar gathering that George Jr.''s craftsmanship found an entirely new outlet, when he visited a flute maker''s booth. By the end of the weekend, he was hooked, captured by the challenge and the beauty. 


With dogged persistence, he studied the reed instrument, learning to make his own. The results are his By George flutes, completely hand-tooled from local river cane. 


"I really wanted to make them from something Native Americans would have actually used; they would never have known bamboo," he said. His flutes are well-respected, even used by national champion flute maker and flautist Billy Whitefox. 


"To take a piece of cane and make it sing ... it''s just amazing to me," the younger Dyson shared. "Each one has a certain spirit to it ... how you feel when you''re making it."  


The flute-making success has been no surprise to his father, who remarked, "I''ve seen him do things (right) the first time, every time. He has eyes in his fingers." 




Changing tide 


The first bowl George Jr. ever made was in 2007. He gave it to his father for Christmas. 


The last bowl George Sr. started had to be finished by his son, following a debilitating stroke. 


More health issues followed. Along the way, "I made a promise to God that I would give away half of everything I''d made if I could go on living," confided the older craftsman, who several months ago moved into the home shared now with his son and new daughter-in-law, Jessie. 


He held up a bead cross on a leather thong. It''s the last item -- to date -- George Sr. has made, since losing a percentage of his hand coordination. 


"I''ve walked away from death more times than you can count," he stated calmly, including incidences during his construction and steel-hanging days in his assessment. "I do miss walking though; that was a solace for me," added the farm boy, who once could trek through a forest and name every tree, as well as a use for it. 


He feels good about passing on to his son the ethics of working with wood -- never abusing the gifts you have, always being respectful of the wood, the work and the people you do it for. 


"It''s more than probably any word I could come up with to sum up what I feel," began George Jr. "I couldn''t do the things I''ve done except for the heritage passed down through him and through generations of woodworkers in our family who had a love of work and a respect for nature. It''s a honor for me to be able to have this skill and put it to use in a way I truly love." 


As for George Sr., a thoughtful man of gentle humor, his take on that tough osage orange wood he learned how to transform decades ago might well be applied to the larger journey he, his son, and the rest of us, are on: 


"It''s not as hard to work with as some people think -- with the proper tools ... and the proper attitude."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.