“What if we created a mystical creature together,” I suggested, catching him off guard. “A snake with the turtle riding on his back?”


Winter/Spring 2002

A story from a sculptor’s
encounters with artists in Appalachia

by Doug Calisch

The guy at the gas station told me I’d find Troy’s house up the gravel road and to the right, but even when I got there, I wasn’t sure it was the right place. An elderly woman was working in the front yard. I knew I had about 30 seconds to convince her that I wasn’t a tax collector or an encyclopedia salesman. My black lab, Wiley, helped. The woman was interested in my dog, and she noticed my camera.

“I’m a carver,” I told her. I said I’d heard of an artist who lived nearby and I wanted to talk with him about his work.

“That would be my husband,” she said. And she called out to Troy and told him I was coming up to the house.

He was a short, wiry man who’d lost his leg in a coal-mining accident. Almost emaciated from stomach cancer that afflicted him, he didn’t look strong enough to walk to the tiny, unheated shed where he worked.

But he lived for that work. He’d struggle out to that shed and start to sing, working lengths of red cedar with old reconditioned or makeshift tools, some crusted with rust, to shape a menagerie of stylized creatures. Under the light of a bare bulb, sometimes in air so cold you could see your breath, he pressed a woodburner over and over on his carvings, imprinting each with an elaborate pattern. The pieces were beautiful.

He offered me a sun tea, opened one for himself, and we talked about our respective projects. I described how I created sculptures from objects I collected.

“And you’re an artist up there in the north?” he asked. I nodded

“And people there like that?” he asked.

“Seems like it,” I said.

Snakes and turtles were prominent in Troy’s created menagerie. The four-foot long snakes were fashioned from cedar branches—a fitting use for the twisting wood. Many people in the valley feared snakes, the serpents of the Genesis story taken literally by most there, including Troy himself. Some of his snakes hung in homes, a talisman to ward off evil.

The turtles were another matter.

“Turtles are wanderers, but they always return home,” Troy explained. They lay their eggs in the same place every year, he said. They were a symbol of nomad—but the nomad connected.

He named each of the turtles after his grandkids, with hopes that his descendants would leave the valley and prosper, but would always return home.

I didn’t have those stories in mind when I saw Troy’s turtles and snakes in his house. My trained eye saw only how their size and shapes fit together almost like a puzzle, though that had not been Troy’s intention.

“What if we created a mystical creature together,” I suggested, catching him off guard. “A snake with the turtle riding on his back?”

Troy thought about it. We went back to the shed, took a couple of snakes and three turtles, and talked for a long time before we started working together. Troy was concerned that, with turtles and snakes being such strong symbols in the valley—symbols with plenty of stories behind them—a turtle riding a snake might just confuse people. I said that, for me, that was the point. People ought to be able to make up their own stories.

Once we’d worked through the artistic concepts, we finished the piece in only an hour or so. I liked the result, and I offered to buy it from him. Troy obliged, simply adding up what he usually charged for a turtle and snake. The hours we talked and worked together were a gift.

A few weeks after I got home, I wrote to Troy and asked him if there was anything he could use from “up north.” The red cedar he prized for his carving was hard to find in his valley, so I shipped him some. His life and work were still inspiring me, and still inform my art; it seemed only right that I send him something he could use for a while, too.

Doug Calisch is professor of art at Wabash.

See works from Calisch’s “Visualized Epilogues” exhibit in this issue's Faculty Gallery.

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