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Woodcarver works to preserve history

Woodcarver Joe Pilkenton shares his stories with audience at the BCHT event.


Associate Editor

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People have forgotten history,” Joe Pilkenton said as he began his presentation to the Boones Creek Historical Trust during their March meeting at the Boones Creek Christian Church Chapel. The sculptor and woodcarver of figures of Daniel Boone set up an artist’s display to illustrate to the 40 people present the meaning of his statement.

“When I talk to an audience, I will be asked about my carvings, questions such as ‘Why does that man have a gun or knife?’ ”  Pilkenton said “There is a right way to talk to children about firearms,” he continued. “Fear is one of the worst things you can have in life – especially with firearms.”   

Coming from the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and reared at the head of “Boggs Holler,” the carver said, “I hunted for food, squirrels and rabbits. People today don’t know how to dig to make a living.  How many of them know how to clean a chicken?”

The men the audience was asking about were heroes like David Crockett and Daniel Boone, according to Pilkenton.  He admits that with early memories of coalminers, farmers and moonshiners, “These were not what I wanted to do for a living. Daydreaming and drawing was a different story.”

Before taking up his present pursuits, the artists enjoyed a long and successful career in the graphics design and illustration field.  The personal computer enabled him to discover that it is “Amazing the stuff you can create with the right tools in hand.”

That imagination has carried over into Pilkenton’s current creative work. Growing up in the “Holler,” where roads were so ruddy you had to walk or ride a mule to travel, he learned to whittle from his grandfather. “I watched; he always had something in his hands.  Then I started whittling – Cowboys, Indians and found a rock I could sit on and ride all day as if it was a horse.”

Dressed in a cowboy outfit, including a hat and a coat, today’s master carver started drawing. He said, “I learned how to draw.  I filled books, even napkins with drawings.” 

Today, Pilkenton said, “I still act if I was a child. Now I teach carving to both children and adults.” He started his present carving at night after a day filled with graphic design.  “I was tired,” he said “and it was a release from the stress of the day. 

Describing himself as a “self-taught sculptor, wood carver, illustrator, painter and semi-retired creative director in a Field of Dreams,” he is the owner of Painted Horse Studio in Kingsport.  The studio has been his place of business some 40 years – 1979 to the present day.

His projects have included work on the Kingsport Carousel, a community project that includes 32 wooden riding animals and two chariots, 24 founding boards depicting notable sites within the city and 24 hand-carved “sweep” animals around the top.  Each animal took 800 to 1,000 hours to carve and paint.

Pilkenton carved a white buffalo for the Carousel that weighed 760 pounds.  “I’d never done anything this size,” he said.   He also carved a pinto that is the lead horse of the carousel.

Of the project, Pilkenton stated, “You would be surprised what people can do.” He invited members at the Boones Creek Historical Trust to come to his studio and view the carousel.  He noted that “so many members of the older generation want to ride the carousel.  It is the most fun.  You will not leave without a smile.”

He views as part of his “functions” in life is to help carvers.  He said, “I would start teaching about shadows.  Learning to see a shadow is how to see how carving is done.”

He donated a Boone sculptor to Kingsport that is 14 to 15 feet long with a water feature.

“I’ve found my niche in the entertainment business,” Pilkenton said of his travels to talk and tell people about his occupation of sculptor and carving. He also was a photographer for many years.  Of his talents, he tells people, “Look through the artist’s eyes and you will see things that you have never seen before.  If you stay long enough and look, life is wonderful.”

He suggested, “Look at children playing and look at the trees. I’m a visual storyteller.  I don’t write books.  Art is a different thing.  You look at the detail.  When I start a piece, it is in my head.  I do a sketch and I do research.”

By way of explaining what he does currently, the artist said, “I now have spent a lot of time getting people to think creatively.  I’m worn many hats over the years.  The Hat I wear now reminds me where I came from… where I’ve been and what it took to get me where I am today.  It fits the best!”

The March Historic Trust Meeting featured the “First Homemade Chili Supper” with seven different soups.  An upcoming event of the organization is their 2019 Fundraiser, a Barbeque Supper on May 10 from 4 – 8 p.m. at the Boones Creek Christian Church. 

For details about the Trust and the Dinner, telephone (423) 461-0151.