CARVING LASTING MEMORIES

Story by Cindi Nobles

Chainsaws and art. The two words may not fit together to some, but when driving up to one unsuspecting house in Atkins, people get an in-your-face experience about how the two somehow cut into one another. Paint brushes and saw dust litter the front yard amongst several large wood art pieces. Some pieces are full tree trunks with faces carved into them. Some are smaller branches with the full face of Native Americans with intricately carved feather headdresses.

On one side of the yard sits a pile of wood that strangers have dropped off for the artist to work with.

The homeowner and artist, Atkins native James Bratton, said some people think his yard is, “too busy.” He just thinks of it as his own art gallery.

Bratton started up a chainsaw. He put the bar to a piece of wood and as the sawdust began to fly and the smell of cedar seared the senses he explained, loudly, how each piece begins.

“I always start with the eyes on the face,” Bratton said crisscrossing on either side of a log with the chainsaw bar. “Then I go toward the nose.”

With a glance at all the pieces in Bratton’s yard one might think he has been working with wood most his life, but it has only been eight years. He said it all began when a friend found a walking stick in the woods one afternoon and carved his name into it.

“He brought me this walking stick and said I could carve a face in it,” he explained as he picked up a gnarled piece of wood. “I was like yeah, right. He said he knew I could do it and I thought to myself I probably could. I took it home that night and borrowed a Dremel tool and got to work.”

Bratton seems almost surprised at his ability.

“I don’t know nothing about wood, nothing about carving, nothing about art,” he said. “It’s just something I picked up one day and started doing. Before I started doing this I couldn’t draw a circle and make the two ends come together.”

A couple of years after Bratton began carving he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. He said his doctors prepared him for the worst-case scenario and sent him home. He had been working as a car salesman for more than 20 years, but as his health began to deteriorate he could no longer work. He said that working with a piece of wood kept him distracted throughout the ups and downs. Bratton then decided to move on to larger projects – with chainsaws.

“When I started chainsaw carving I had never picked up a chainsaw before,” he said. “I just went at it. I didn’t even know how to put oil or gas in the thing.”

His introduction to the chainsaw turned into something quite comical. After dulling his first chain, he wasn’t aware a chain could be sharpened so he purchased a new chain.

“I apparently put the brand new chain on backward,” Bratton laughed. “I felt like an idiot when I took it to my brother and him telling me I put it on backward. It’s just one of those things. When there is something out there you decide you can do and you just jump in and do it you are going to run into things like that. It wasn’t about the chainsaw, but about what I could do with the chainsaw.”

Bratton’s work started out and remains popular amongst many of his neighbors. He said it isn’t unusual to draw a few onlookers while he is outside working. At other times, people’s reactions come as a surprise to him.

“I came up over the hill to my house one day after I had just started chainsaw carving. My neighbor across the road had one of the bears I had carved over his shoulder,” he pointed across the street to a large bear standing on a porch. “My neighbor said, ‘When you get ready for it back it will be over here on my porch.’ It’s been over there ever since.”

Bratton said he firmly believes God put the first walking stick in his hands in preparation for obstacles to come.

“I’m just not a man who likes to sit with nothing to do,” he said. “I think God knew I would need something to do on down the road to keep me occupied.”

James has been married to his wife, Sandra for 35 years. Doctors have deemed her terminally ill. The family has home health care nurses that help with her caretaking, but most of the caretaking falls on the immediate family.

Bratton said that getting out to his wood shop, or out in the yard to work on projects, helps take his mind off what is going on inside his home.

“My family is my life,” he said. “I’ve vowed not to put her in a nursing facility. With the help of our daughters and home healthcare, I believe we can make it work. I don’t like to leave her, but sometimes I need to get away from being on top of the situation.

When our helpers come in, I can go outside and just go to work on something and it helps. For me not ever being an artistic kind of guy, I feel like God just put this in my hands. Something for me to do. It really is a Godsend in so many ways.”

The Bratton’s have two adult daughters and six grandchildren. His grandson Braxton stood nearby. He said his hobby has also brought him closer to his grandchildren.

“Braxton is my eldest grandchild,” he said pointing at the tow-headed kid. “He has been a great deal of help to me. He is learning to carve, and he is loving it. If there is a piece I don’t really care to finish I will throw it out on the burn pile. I can’t tell you how many times he’s gone out a pulled one off the burn pile and had me finish, and that is good for me.”

Braxton nodded his head in agreement.

A can of polyurethane sat propped up against his wood shop. Braxton said going inside the shop is one of his favorite moments with his granddad.

“We can go in that wood shed and talk for hours,” Bratton said. “We don’t solve the world’s problems, but we solve mine and his problems.”

Every piece placed throughout the yard had a different story. One piece in particular stood out from the rest – a woodcarving of a woman with her hair in a conservative bun, high-collared full-length dress, holding a Holy Bible and tissues sticking out of pocket

“That is a carving of my mother that passed away about three years ago. I started work on it about a year before she passed,” Bratton held out a picture. The photo was a striking resemblance to the carving.

Bratton said his mother was in a nursing facility suffering with Alzheimer’s when he began working on the piece. He also said he never goes out to work on a particular piece; the idea just comes to him when he picks up the chainsaw.

“I just came outside one day and picked up a piece of wood and started working on it. It just kind of comes over me. I know it might sound crazy, but it just does,” he said. “Everyone who knew her always called her Grandma Bratton. It didn’t matter if you were related or not. To this day, when people see this carving, they know exactly who this is. Everywhere she went she had her bible and her tissues in her pocket.”

He said she held a prominent role in the family and was close to many.

“She was a very special lady to me, her grandkids, great-grandkids and everyone who knew her. This is just a little way I can kind of have a piece of her for all of us to remember, and through my art this is what I’m leaving for all my family. We don’t have much, but we have each other and they can always have a little something like this to remind them of me.”

Braxton said his art is strictly a hobby. Many of his pieces he gives to friends and family, but can’t imagine charging anyone money for something he often times will just leave in his yard to rot. A lot of his friends have picked pieces from his yard and found homes for them in their own.

“My grandkids, my kids, my brothers, sisters, in-laws, friends, everyone I know has a piece of my work,” Braxton said humbly. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m sick, I don’t know. But seven years ago the doctors said I’m dying, then three years ago they say I’m dying. Everyone is born and everyone dies. To me, this wood stuff; if I give it to somebody I know it’s a part of me. If I sell it, it’s just something somebody bought.

“My favorite thing to tell people is all a poor man can leave is memories, and if you’re going to leave memories make them good,” Bratton said. “I push myself real hard to leave them something good. Hopefully when they look down at something I made they will think only good thoughts.”

 

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