For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is March 25, 2019

Art takes a hike

The story sticks of woodcarver Mike Johnson

By Debbie Stringer

Art takes a hike

Mike Johnson holds one of his newest hiking stick carvings, in which a damsel in distress cries for help while the villian rolls a boulder down the spiraling path toward the hero coming to her rescue.

Mike Johnson’s hand-carved hiking sticks not only provide stability on the trail but can tell stories too.

Working at his home in Walnut Grove, Johnson carves intricate, imaginative images up and down long sticks of wood. He further embellishes the wood with carved text from poems, song lyrics or, in one case, a piece of family history.

The carved images and words work together to support a story or theme. Johnson calls them “story sticks.”

One of his first story sticks honors James Johnson, his paternal grandfather. Johnson carved a complete account of his grandfather’s Civil War military service (starting in 1861) and added images of the U.S. and Confederate flags to represent both armies. He topped the stick with a three-dimensional carved head of the Confederate soldier.

Another story stick features a red-headed woodpecker peeking from its hole in the wood. The design was inspired by a childhood memory. “We’d be scared of the thunder, so my mother would gather us up next to her and quote ‘The Woodpecker’ to calm us down,” Johnson said.

The poem, by Elizabeth Roberts, is carved into the stick.

Johnson can’t explain what lead him to carving decades ago. “I don’t know how I actually got into this but when I was a little boy my dad drove an oil truck for a distributor here. When they had a day off, they would sit and whittle and make long, curly shavings. And I always loved to watch them,” he said.

Not being allowed to own a pocketknife at that tender age, Johnson didn’t pick up carving himself until the mid-1970s. His first attempts were butterflies as pendants for necklaces.

“They were really crude at first, and then I found out I could develop them into more detailed carvings,” he said.

Johnson found the more he carved, the more he wanted to create.

He still carves butterflies, for framing or wearing as jewelry. He also produces clocks mounted in panels, hinged boxes and other wood items featuring “illusion inlay,” as he calls it. The technique involves incising designs in the wood, adding colors with acrylic paints and rubbing stain into the carved lines for emphasis.

“I am not a trained artist,” Johnson said. “I just like to put paint on stuff.”

Another of his creative pursuits is etched glass.

It was the uniqueness of his story sticks, however, that earned Johnson membership in the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, whose members are juried based on their craftsmanship and artistry.

Creating a story stick is such a labor-intensive process that he typically produces only three a year. One of the technical challenges is maintaining a balance along the length of the stick to keep it from becoming top or bottom heavy.

Johnson uses a variety of carving tools but his favorite is the 2-inch blade of the vintage Camillus pocketknife he found in the street. “It sharpens so well,” he said.

Most of his sticks are fashioned from saplings he harvests locally, including ash, elm and sweet gum. He often leaves sections of the bark intact for a natural look.

Since retiring from his career as a teacher and boys basketball coach, Johnson has enjoyed more time spent in his creative activities. He works in a small studio and gallery he calls Scat Cat Art, at the home he shares with his wife, Lynn. She is developing a website for marketing his work, a chore Johnson dislikes. He’d rather be carving.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.