Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. · www.southernfocus.com
Preservation as an Art
From the Fall 2009 issue
Etching memories in wood has been the preferred pastime of George Berry for a lifetime. With a simple pocket knife, the renowned Mississippi folk artist has rendered art pleasing to generations, but most of all pleasing to himself.
“My dad used to whittle and taught me how to handle a knife. I’d spend hours at a time just watching him. It seemed like such a peaceable thing to do; I’m sure it kept me quiet, too!” Berry recollects.
The youngest of nine children, Berry was raised on his parents’ forty acre farm near a Cherokee village in the White Oak Indian Hills of rural Oklahoma. “My father was a farmer and carpenter,” he explains. “He built a log cabin for his family, so I was raised there in the country around a lot of nature, animals and Indian culture. In fact, I was brought into this world by an Indian lady.” Inspired by his environment, Berry began carving at the age of six. In addition to his father’s influence, he also accredits his mother for his love of creating art. She did handwork using patterns, usually birds, which Berry would trace onto wood and then carve. As he became more adept, he began to carve without a pattern. He says, “It just seemed like something I was supposed to do. I’d start carving and watching it eventually turn into something!” Each of Berry’s pieces is unique and conveys his visual talent. He never measures, simply carves the way he sees the object, whether still or in motion.
Using a variety of woods, primarily basswood, Berry prefers to leave his sculptures unpainted, merely applying a transparent stain or clear sealant to the finished product. Since childhood Berry has created mostly wildlife and nature pieces, a reflection of his upbringing. “I guess you could say my signature piece is an owl, which was inspired by an old Indian man I remember from my childhood. I can see his eyes now, blinking like an owl. As kids, we believed that he actually would turn into an owl and watch over us,” he recalls. Maintaining a connection to his Cherokee roots, Berry continues to make an annual pilgrimage to Oklahoma to his old stomping ground for Native American festivals and celebrations.
In the early 1970s, Berry was offered a job by Dr. Laurence Jones, founder of Piney Woods School, to teach woodworking and cabinetry there. “When Dr. Jones invited me to Piney Woods, I had no idea about Mississippi, but when I came here it just seemed like some place I’d been before. The people seemed familiar to me; I don’t think I’ve ever met a stranger here in Mississippi!” Berry reflects. “When I started out teaching, I’d try to show my students how to make a certain piece. Then I thought, ‘Why not teach them the way my father taught me?’ So I first try to convey that safety is the most important part. Next, I teach how to handle the tools to build up strength in your hands. Then I sell it as a medicine: be patient; it’s good therapy! When your brain gets tired and full, it’s just relaxing and clears your head. My technique starts out with a square piece of wood. Round it off, and this gives you a feel for the wood. Look at it; follow the grain, the knots, the wormholes. You’d be surprised how sometimes you can just see an animal in the wood. Then start to try and bring it out. Above all, tell yourself, ‘I will; I can; I believe!’”
Berry retired from Piney Woods in 1985 but still devotes time each day to his craft. Through the years his work has been exhibited in major festivals across the country, including the Mississippi Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. In 1976 two of his pieces were selected to travel with the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has been awarded the prestigious Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts on several occasions and received a Folk Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 1999. Berry is a charter member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi and serves on its Board of Directors. Other recognition includes the 2003 Hometown Hero Shining Example Award, presented by the Jackson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the Mississippi Ageless Hero Award for Creativity, presented by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Mississippi. Berry’s art is also exhibited in the Old Capitol Museum and the Museum of Natural Science, as well as in private collections throughout the United States.
Berry continues to inspire others by teaching woodcarving classes for the Craftsmen’s Guild as well as conducting workshops throughout the south. “I carve a little every day, and I suppose I’ll continue as long as I enjoy it,” says Berry, who built himself what he refers to as “a little doghouse” for his backyard studio. “I see a lot of work that I think is better than mine; I’m constantly trying to learn and improve. I can always find some room for improvement, so I guess I’m competing with myself!” When asked about his favorite piece, Berry lightheartedly muses, “I don’t really know—I suppose I’m still working on it!”
For more information on George Berry and to view his gallery, visit his website at www.georgeberry.biz.