Whittling Life

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on October 8, 2000

George Berry is intuitive about his art. Watching him stroke and maneuver wood is like watching a mother nurture her child. Berry is a 62-year-old artist of the old tradition, a wood sculptor who takes a simple pocketknife and creates masterpieces in wildlife and other figurines from blocks of walnut, basswood, and mahogany. He prefers basswood because it takes a good stain, but any wood in his hands becomes a potential showpiece.

Wood sculpting, called woodcarving or simply whittling by the older generation, has become a lost folk art, and hand sculpting is nearly extinct. Unlike contemporary artisans, Berry doesnt use electrical carving devices such as speed grinders. All he needs is a pocketknife and sandpaper. And if he doesnt have sandpaper, a shard of glass will suffice.

The old folks used glass to smooth a piece, he explains.

Berry has a missionarys zest for educating people about this craft, handed down from his father. He sees himself as one of a handful left to preserve the art form as a remnant of Southern, and particularly Mississippi, culture. So, the Pearl, Miss., resident, a charter member of the Craftsmens Guild of Mississippi, travels frequently throughout the South to teach children and adults hand carving as it was taught to him. He also has regular teaching jobs in his home state at such organizations as the Mississippi Agriculture Museum.

Berry has been whittling since he was 6.

The old folks loved to whittle, he says. It took your mind away from everything. It gives you so much that you forget everything around you.

Although relaxing, whittling also was practical. The older folks would whittle out what they neededworkable tools such as an ax or hammer handle. It is this sense of self-reliance that Berry enjoys sharing with young people when he teaches in public schools, passing along an important art form as well as an oral tradition.

We whittle and I tell them stories about how the old men would chop down a hickory tree and cut out the center part, then whittle it down to size. Theyd see who could get the longest curl from the whittled chips. Man, this was bragging stuff! he says.

Although he has lived primarily on proceeds from his art since 1985, woodcarving is his joy because of the people it brings into his life. He considers this the most fulfilling part of his work.

Jerry Rees, an artist and former student of Berrys, was captivated as he watched Berry at work on one of his specialty piecesthe owl.

When I found out he was doing it all with a pocketknife, I had to try it out, Rees says. Hes such an amazing man . . . a humble, unassuming gentleman with a joy for life, his church, and his family.

As Berry sits quietly and transforms an ordinary piece of wood, a showcase of prize ribbons and beautiful, life-like carvings surround him: owls, horses, butterflies, elephants, birds, fish. His jewel is what he affectionately calls his staff of starsa cane he carved while he was an extra on the set of A Time to Kill, the movie based on the John Grisham novel, filmed in Canton, Miss. Actors on the set, such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, and Samuel Jackson, signed Berrys cane.

Much of Berrys inspiration is drawn from the landscape of Mississippi. He worked as an industrial arts instructor at The Piney Woods School in rural Rankin County for 14 years. The serene, rustic campus was a perfect setting for him.

Earnest Ward, superintendent/principal of The Piney Woods School, remembers the positive impact Berry had on his students.

It was a joy to work with George Berry because of his pleasing personality, Ward says. He could master so many tasks.

Berrys work has been exhibited all over Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Hes frequently recognized for his remarkable abilities, and in turn, his pieces annually acknowledge outstanding work when presented to recipients of the Mississippi Governors Award for Excellence. But his art means much more to him than fame.

My dream is to create in wood what I would like to see in our world, Berry is fond of saying, beauty, peace, love, and good will.