Doug Calisch-ARTIST'S STATEMENTS (2nd of 3)
A story from a sculptor’s
encounters with artists in Appalachia
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 that work is what he lived for. 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
He offered me a beer, opened one for himself, and we talked about our
respective projects. I described how I created sculptures from objects I
“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
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
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
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, Professor of Art
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