VALDESE — “I’ve whittled all my life,” said Jesse Wilkinson, master woodcarver and longtime member of the Valdese Heritage Arts Center.
Wilkinson is the center’s featured artist for July. His work can hardly be called whittling.
His father brought home discarded wooden carts from the hosiery mill where he worked. The soft wood was ideal for making the cars and toys young Wilkinson enjoyed while growing up in the 1940s.
From there, it was one step after another bringing Wilkinson closer to his craft. Basically self-taught, he’s had boosts along the way. Sharpening his knife was an important first step. A neighbor taught him how by the time he was age 10. A Greensboro neighbor later got him interested in actual carving. He bought himself a modest set of tools and began.
A former scoutmaster, who was also a professional woodcarver, taught him how to order more specialized tools from New York.
“These were tools I never knew existed,” said Wilkinson. “You couldn’t just go into a hardware store and buy them.”
His interests and skills developed and Wilkinson became a master of his craft. He has won numerous awards and ribbons over the years. For four years, he won the gold medal in the Senior Games Woodcarving and Sculpture competition. “You had to pick one category,” he said. “It was a bit of a squeeze for some items, but we chose to compete in sculpture.”
The sculpture was made of mahogany. His Lord’s Supper is a full 20 by 54 inches in size. Wilkinson carved it for a lady a few years ago. He said it was a mammoth undertaking, one-of-a-kind, a museum piece, and so it remains. “Another lady asked me to make her one,” Wilkinson admitted. “But I just couldn’t do it.”
Wilkinson works in a variety of woods, preferring mahogany or walnut. He starts with an idea of what he wants to make, then moves on from there. His work is realistic.
“I don’t do caricatures,” Wilkinson said. He often works on commission. He’s been carving for one woman’s grandchildren for years, ever since they were born. For the first child, he made different kinds of animals; for the second, breeds of dog; for the third, pairs of animals for his Noah’s Ark. He also made the Ark.
A visit to his booth at the Heritage Arts Center reflects Wilkinson’s carving skill and range. There are walking sticks with individualized handles, miniscule decoys, Noah’s Ark creatures, people and animals of all descriptions, even a great white flying horse - Pegasus. A great favorite is the tiny colt, beguiling in its innocent youth.
“We sell those colts as fast as Jesse puts them in the shop,” said Blaka Abee, a fellow VHAC member. Wilkinson’s prices are modest. He says he carves for pleasure, not for profit.
Wilkinson grew up in Hickory, and then joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. Seven years later, he was at N.C. State in Raleigh, graduating with a mechanical engineering degree.
Years have passed, but Jesse Wilkinson says he’s never really retired. He’s worked as plant engineer, machine designer, production manager, and more with companies as varied as Carolina Steel, Gilbarco, Jemco, Crain Industries, Design Tools and Exxon. Wilkinson holds several patents for mechanical devices.
“When one job ended,” Wilkinson said, “I just went on to another.” And he’s still working, this time for a man who does elaborate staircases, newels, spiral work, turned spindles, and more.
That’s not all. Wilkinson has another interest, music. For years he sang with the Moonlighters, a close-harmony men’s group, and he still sings with his church choir.
His work on pipe organs, cleaning, repairing and tuning. That sideline carries him all over the Southeast. The rains and summer temperatures make organs “just go crazy,” he said, necessitating frequent retuning. Humidity swells the wood. The temperatures work on the metal, causing it to expand and contract. By contrast, wood carving is a steadying undertaking, one Wilkinson sees more as an avocation than a vocation.
Wilkinson lives in Conover. He has a son, a daughter, and three granddaughters, all of whom live in the Hickory area. Two of his granddaughters are nurses; the third is still in school. Nobody else in the family does wood carving, but Wilkinson has shared his skills. He’s taught carving classes at Guilford Technical Institute, High Point University and at Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute. He shares his skills at the Valdese Heritage Arts Center, where on a Thursday afternoon he can be found with his materials and his tools, shaping animals or people from inanimate wood while one of his students watches the magic.
Valdese Heritage Arts Center occupies the historic Waldensian building at 146 Main St. West. More than 20 regional artists and craftsmen show and sell their creations as members of this cooperative.
Summer hours are: Monday 1:30–5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Friday 1:30–9 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.