AN ARTIST’S EYE
A POET’S HEART
In the not so distant past in the Mollohan Mill neighborhood in Newberry, there was a young boy who loved to ramble in the woods and play in the creeks around him. He brought home old wood and rocks that caught his interest. He was not a town creature. He was a woodsman with an artist’s eyes. He could look at old trees, logs, and dappled sunlight on rocks and see faces and pictures in his mind.
During this time, his father taught him how to find arrowheads and other Indian artifacts, even along Newberry creeks right in town. He imagined the lives of those natives and the spirits they left behind in the woods that were once their homes.
William McKinney was happy when he was alone in the woods. He says he even breathes better in the woods. As he grew he began to keep journals about his rambles in the woods and what he saw with his artist’s eyes and his poet’s heart. He still brought home driftwood, arrowheads and rocks. Sometimes he wrote stories inspired by the trees, the rocks, and the animals, and fueled by his imagination. Sometimes, he wrote poetry. He is a private person and keeps his journals and his thoughts to himself mostly.
In 1997, now a young man and married and living in the woods in Saluda County, William received a carving of an old Native American to go on a wall in his home as a Christmas present from his Dad. He said, “I was blown away when I saw it.” I said to myself, “I can do that.”
For 10 years, he thought about carving in wood and he talked and he talked about carving in wood, but he didn’t do it. To be fair, he was working at Willingham and Sons Building Supplies, raising his kids, and just working hard.
His wife Louann finally got tired of hearing about it. She told him, “I wish you would just try it and not talk about it so much.” She had always supported his interest in carving and had even bought him a Dremel carving tool years ago. His wife’s support meant a lot to William. “She knew I could,” he said.
Maybe it was Louann’s belief in him. Maybe it was just time that he proved that he could. He pulled out an old twisted stick that he had been saving for years. He remembered, “I carved a face in that stick, an old wood spirit face with a beard.” Not only did his wife love the carving, as she knew she would, but everyone else did, too. It was the encouragement he needed.
His Dad was so impressed with William’s first carving that he took him up near Pumpkin Town to meet Lewis Holloway, the artist who had done the carving his Dad had given him. William was thrilled and gathered up pine knots to take with them. These knotty wood pieces were like the one that hung on his wall that started it all.
Lewis welcomed him and and his pine knots. He shared his wood carving wisdom with William, giving him advice about the tools he needed and the safe way to use them. William said, “In that one day we became best friends, and we still are today…We talk weekly” William explained the relationship, “Lewis and I are just alike. We could be brothers.”
William admitted that the first carving wasn’t that good by his current standards, but it got him started. He chuckled and said, “The rest we could say is history…” The rest was also long evenings and weekends in his shop carving and learning while working every day at Willingham’s.
In the beginning, it was mostly smaller Native American faces or wood spirit carvings. These carvings sold very well at Indian Artifact Shows in the southeast that he and his Dad had been going to for years, swapping, selling, trading and buying. “Those artifact shows encouraged me to keep going [with my carving]. I sold out over and over again,” he said.
William does much more than just these faces and spirits twelve years after he started carving. He does large scale carvings of fish, birds, woods animals, and Native Americans. He has even begun painting his carvings, something he didn’t want to do. As so often happens when William starts something new, he looks on-line at videos and photos, chats with fellow artists on line, or even face to face, and, most importantly, he gives himself permission to try and fail and try again.
This learning process is highlighted in his recent commission, a fish for the Lake Murray Visitors Center. By the way, one of his faithful friends recommended him for the job. He actually didn’t have to start from the beginning on this one. He had a large striped bass that he had carved several years ago that found its way back to his shop.
William had learned a lot since he first carved this fish. He had studied photos and actual fish that informed his fine tuning of the shape of the large striped bass, making it more realistic. He tediously carved in the scales of the fish and then painted the large specimen, where he learned a lot about blending paint colors and patience. Once again, the thing he dreaded the most has become something he enjoys. The color shading certainly heightened the visual reality of the fish. It has been delivered and installed with care at the Lake Murray Visitors Center. Go by and see it sometime.
In addition to refining his carving and painting skills, William is trying different mediums like rock, and different tools like chainsaws. He explained, “The goal every day is to get a little better and learn something new.” He especially enjoys doing the chainsaw and rock work in his summer, open air shop.
Newberry friend and sculpture artist Eric Moore has inspired him with his stone carvings. William and Eric knew each other from high school. Eric gave him a call one day and asked William to meet him at Hardee’s. He wanted to show William his first stone sculpture. William still remembers to this day how “blown away” he was. “Eric has so much natural talent. He’s always stepping his game up,” William said. He and Eric encourage each other, support each other, and learn from each other.
Going to juried art shows, where artists must send in pictures of their work and be approved by a panel of judges, is another example of Eric’s influence. William has been accepted to a number of art shows in the southeast in the last several years. This year he will go to seven shows, some of them juried art shows. Although skeptical at first, William is much more comfortable now with art shows. He said, “It’s refreshing at art shows to hear people say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like your work.’ They love it because it is different.”
How does William find time to go to art shows, Indian Artifact Shows and other events to sell his art work, not to mention creating all of his art pieces? William decided a little over a year ago that after 25 years at Willingham’s he was ready to quit and do his carving full time. He was challenging himself more and more in his art and was doing well. He also needed time to himself to grieve and accept the recent losses of his father, mother and step-father.
William finds solace in his family, his art and his early mornings in his back yard studio and garden. He has created an oasis with plants in old canoes, fish and koi ponds in old tubs, an eating area covered with a discarded satellite dish. Along the woodland paths beckoning to unknown adventures, are his own sculptures in wood and stone. It’s no wonder he gets up early most days and sits outside in this personal oasis to feed his birds, listen to sounds of all of the birds, enjoy his flowers, and gather his thoughts before the sun comes up.
Recently after one of these peaceful mornings, William began “the most special carving I’ve ever done.” He pulled out a piece of wood with a forked top. He looked at the piece and could see what it would become, just like he could as a child and many times since then. He knew then this was going to be a special piece. “You want the wood to inspire the piece. Those are the best pieces,” he said.
Despite this inspiration, he started and stopped with this piece. It was really difficult to focus because of the loss of his family members and the grief and confusion he felt. One day as he finished up the first owl and stood back, he realized that it reminded him of a story he had written many years ago about a family, a tree and an owl. He was stunned by the moment. Never had his carvings and his private writings touched each other. This truly was special.
He searched his old journals, not finding the whole story, but he remembered it clearly. It was the generational story of a man and a woman who loved each other and a special tree where owls were welcomed. The young couple carved their initials on the front of the tree. They married, had children and brought those children to play under the peaceful canopy of the tree, the wise eyes of the owls and the carved heart with their initials. While sitting on blankets under the tree they told the children about the carving of the heart with their initials and the promise of love it represented. The children grew and carved a heart with their initials and those of their beloveds. It was truly their Family Tree.
One day when the mother and father were old, all of the family gathered under the Family Tree to celebrate their family. They sadly noticed that the first heart carved by the now grandparents had finally decayed. In the place of the heart that pledged eternal love was a gaping hole. The grandmother told them not to worry. When she left this earth, she would come back as an owl and nest in the “heart” hole of this special tree. She would be the family’s guardian spirit forever.
In time Grandmother died. As was their custom, the family came together under the Family Tree to find solace and healing. They looked to the scarred, old tree with the gaping hole and there were the wise eyes of a strangely familiar owl. Their grandmother had kept her promise.
This first Family Tree and its special story are for William and his family to help them heal and remember love, but William wants to share it. He wants to share more of these carvings with the story attached. Each family can add their initials in the hearts on their Family Tree. “Who knew you could take a wood carving and turn it into a family story,” he exclaimed.
William is excited about his new project. He is excited to be doing the art he loves every day now. He enjoys selling his wood through Facebook, regional shows, word of mouth, and off his trailer. About that trailer selling, he recently took his wife to the mountains for their anniversary. He wasn’t going to take the trailer with his work on it, but his wife and biggest fan encouraged him to do it. They sold two large pieces off the trailer that weekend and had a great anniversary.
He knows one thing for sure about this new full time adventure. “The minute you get comfortable, you have to do something different and make yourself uncomfortable,” he said. Like writing more stories and working in concrete, who knows?
William is more comfortable today with pushing himself to the edge of discomfort. He has proven that he can do that. He sees change in his future; just like he has always been able to see the faces in the trees, the patterns in the stones with his artist’s eyes and his poet’s heart.
You may contact William on his Facebook page (William McKinney). He often posts pictures of his work. You can also just keep a look out for a pickup truck pulling a trailer around Newberry and Saluda Counties with carvings of eagles, Native Americans, owls, bears, fish, etc. He will sell it to you right on the spot!
Photographs by Ted B. Williams.