‘Listen to it’: Local man finds soul therapy giving new life to old wood

June 5, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Under a huge, spreading oak in East Columbus, Roosevelt Davis listens to the wood ... the cedar, bois d''arc and oak limbs and trunks he and his nephew, Tarvars Davis, have salvaged from the woods along rural country roads. 


The finds lie in a haphazard pile at the base of the old tree, looking like nothing more than debris. But in Roosevelt''s eyes, there''s beauty to be uncovered there. Natural beauty in the distinctive grains, gnarls, patterns and colors of each individual piece. 


"It might look rotten or dead, but it''s just like people. They might look dead, but you keep shinin'' and shinin'' on ''em, and you gonna find some good in there," the 49-year-old says with customary optimism. 


Roosevelt, with the help of Tarvars, is giving this scavenged wood a second life -- in conversation-starting tables, rustic chairs, handsome walking canes or tabletop sculptures.  


"I''ve just got a real deep passion for making somethin'' outa nothin''," he says, talking rapidly and with enthusiasm, leaning at times on one of his own handcrafted canes. "It''s an old art. ... You just got to listen to it. I just see a picture in somethin'' and go to whackin'' on it." 




Under the oak 


The work station under the old oak shelters a worn metal office desk, its drawers filled with drills, grinders and a dozen other aids that might come in handy one of these days. Roosevelt rests on the wooden work bench as his nephew takes the bark off a limb with a compact two-handled skinner, wryly observing, "This thing is probably older than you and me both." 


A blower extracted from an ancient air system stirs the June air as dappled sunlight skids across the dust.  


After Tarvars is finished stripping, the twisting branch will be ready for sanding and polyurethane, resurrected as a sturdy walking cane.  


While the two men hope to develop a market for what they make, the biggest reward -- the soul therapy -- comes from the creation. 


"It makes you see somethin'' you been missin'', ''cause we don''t have time to slow down," Roosevelt has learned. "So many thoughts go through your head while you''re doin'' it; you get in that deep thought." 


Tarvars, 33, agrees. "I can get back there and clear my head." The young father of two is already passing on a few time-honored skills to his own 5- and 6-year-old sons, teaching them to peel bark from small limbs.  




Life-altering injury 


The woodwork is a relatively new pastime for Roosevelt. Life was once very different for this former construction and ironworker. For 30 years, he was used to fearlessly "climbing hundreds of feet into the air building things." It was work he pursued all over the Southeast. 


"You follow the job," he preached. "Wherever the job is, I''d go get it, cause I don''t like no handouts." 


He left his mark on sprawling corporate installations such as the North American Coal Corporation''s Red Hills Mine in Ackerman and Weyerhaeuser in Columbus. And on residential projects, like the well-known Fifth Street South second-floor apartment and swimming pool originally contracted by Frank Imes, as well as the lovely home in the Prairie built for his mother, Nancy Imes. 


But that strenuous career ended in 2004, on a job site in Florida. 


"I got hurt bad," the Columbus man explains. "It messed up five vertebrae in my neck; doctors fused two of ''em and put a plate and screws in there about a year ago." Roosevelt also suffers from damaged discs in his back and has been declared disabled. "But being 100 percent disabled don''t have to mean that you''re dead!" he asserts. "You can do something with your life." 


About a year after the accident, his thoughts turned to wood. He''d never indulged in an artistic pursuit before, but says, "I could see it all the time, but until I wasn''t working, I never had time to do anything about it. And I ain''t no house-aholic; I can''t sit in the house all day." 


With Tarvars'' able-bodied help, the Davis duo would scour roadsides or swamps, especially when "it''s cold and ain''t no weeds." 


"My nephew is a great assistance to me," Roosevelt praised. "I can lay it out, and he picks it right up and sees it right then. ... He''s like my child to me." 




Going green  


The younger Davis has been employed at Flexsteel Furniture in Starkville for about 10 years and knows his wood. 


"All that stuff out there?" That''s going green -- he don''t throw away nothin''!" Tarvars laughs. 


Except for the polyurethane to coat finished pieces, and bolts to ensure the sturdiness of the furniture, each piece is fashioned out of found material, says Roosevelt, with pride. 


A large, striking table behind the house is a organic amalgam of bois d''arc (often pronounced bodock) and mirrored glass. The mirror, now backed by 3/4-inch plywood, was found discarded near dumpsters behind the post office on Main Street. 


Inside Roosevelt''s house, an intricately designed cedar side table that would be at home in any lodge, cabin or camp, holds a heavy television set. The piece, topped with glass thrown out at Mississippi State University, represents about a month''s worth of work.  


"It (the furniture) is what it looks like -- stout," Roosevelt confirms. "We don''t use no screws; it''s all bolts, so it''s super-strong. It could be passed down from generation to generation; it''s not gonna tear up." 


The pair strive to place bolts unobtrusively, "disguising" them when need be to preserve the natural appearance of each unique grain. 


"I like the wood to come out and show itself," shares the designer, who also very recently took up painting as an outlet. "And no two pieces are ever gonna be the same." 




Positive path 


As word spreads about the one-of-a-kind pieces, Roosevelt and Tarvars have enjoyed a few sales, and hope to display at the local arts center in coming months. Friends have urged them to market the creations at places like Ripley and Canton.  


"But I don''t see doing that," Roosevelt says. "I''m just gonna keep doin'' what I''m doin''." Then, with that ever-present grin, adds, "There''s a whole lotta talented people in the Golden Triangle, and maybe we can just enjoy lookin'' at each other''s stuff."  


Determined that his disability will not handicap the rest of his life, Roosevelt wants to give back by example, showing infirmities can''t snuff out creativity. 


"God fixed it so I could manage the things that have happened to me," he says with conviction. "You got to keep him out front, and you can''t go wrong. ... I don''t like to lose a day. I like to say, ''I accomplished something this day,'' and it''d be hard to take that out of me. I hope I can influence a lot more people who may be disabled in some way.  


"You just got to put your hand on somethin'' ... make somethin'' happen."  


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.