Blue Springs man finds niche as carver

Thursday, January 3, 2008
Tom Bowlin stood by one of 16 wood carvings he chopped and chiseled from scratch Dec. 3 in Blue Springs, Mo. (Amy Elrod ~ The Examiner)

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- You don't have to see Tom Bowlin's wood sculptures to believe he likes working with his hands:~ Tom Bowlin has carved himself a community out of oak, cedar and maple.

His two missing fingers tell you that.

Bowlin, a 10th Street resident in Blue Springs, is as modest as you can get when it comes to his interest, which is plainly seen throughout both his yard and in his home.

He laughs rapidly when asked about it, but then he stops laughing and shrugs his broad shoulders.

"It's just a hobby, and there are a lot of wood carvers out there who are much better than me," Bowlin said. "This was just a fluke."

But certainly he's better than most.

During the past 11 years, Bowlin has carved himself a literal community out of oak, cedar and maple. There are bears and a snake. There have been fish, too, including one fish that led to his finger losses -- a story in itself.

About five years ago, Bowlin was cleaning up his grandparents' property when the tree he was working to remove fell and twisted, pinching his two fingers.

"I was just cleaning up the property, and I wanted the wood for a fish," Bowlin said, showing off his hand. "I knew the wood would be good for a fish."

Good for a fish.

Bad for his hand.

"It didn't scare me off, though."

The fish was eventually completed and, like most of his carvings, he gave it to a family member. He's presented fish, birds and other animal carvings to brothers and sisters and his children for holiday gifts and special occasions.

When Bowlin first saw a wood carving, it was during the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. One moment a large tree trunk was just a large tree trunk; a half-hour later when he returned, it was a bear.

"You just couldn't believe it; I couldn't believe it."

So he gave it a try. His first carving was an Indian head, and there it still sits, beside a decorative outhouse in his backyard. Considering that it was his first attempt, the Indian head resembles what he intended: an Indian head.

"It looks pretty good."

The projects that followed, however, were tougher than an Indian head. How about a 2,000 pound bear or a coiled snake that drinks a half gallon of vegetable oil per year?

Admittedly, Bowlin agrees, one has to have artist sensibilities to carve wood, not to mention the proper tools, including a chain saw (though he doesn't use chain saws as much as he used to because of the noise).

Patience helps, too. When Bowlin finds a piece of wood, be it a trunk or large branch, he doesn't immediately engage in the project.

He sits it upon its side or parks it in his concrete driveway and considers its shape, its overall appearance.

"I walk by the wood many times before I decide what it'll be," Bowlin said. "Sometimes it tells me what it wants to be."

He said he prefers to work in winter because the flying wood chips aren't as bothersome.

"You can wrap yourself up pretty good in clothes, which keeps the wood from flying all over you," he said. "And doing this keeps you warm."

Bowlin is living proof of the truth spoken by Michelangelo, who, speaking of his marble sculptures, once said he was "liberating the figure imprisoned in the marble."

In this case it's wood.

What do you make out of an apple tree branch, after all?

A No. 2 pencil, of course, a creation he eventually gave his daughter, an artist who lives in Chicago.

What do you do with the trunk of a walnut tree? Carve it into what appears to be a short wizard.

"People call him Jesus, but I just call him the old man who watches over my garage."

And the old carving should watch Bowlin's property, too. Bowlin has come home to find his carvings moved. His outside bear, the third he carved, was moved about 6 feet, abandoned, most likely, by exhausted thieves.

But not everyone who comes by wants to steal his creations. In summer, it's not uncommon for a tour bus to take a shortcut around his house.

"I'm thinking they're following the progress of some of my carvings," he said.

Inside his home, one of his favorite carvings keeps an eye on him in bed. It's the coiled snake, carved vertically out of an old pine tree trunk.

To preserve it, Bowlin places vegetable oil at the bottom, which the wood drinks slowly throughout the year.

For the future, Bowlin hasn't planned any specific projects. After all, the wood tells him what to do.

"I like doing it. It's a way of creating something out of what would just end up being firewood," he said.

Between projects, Bowlin said he will concentrate on another effort to pass the time: making clocks for Christmas.

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