Crash leads Georgian to wood carving
by Terry Dickson
December 08, 2013 11:06 PM | 786 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Wood carver Bill Johnson looks at the old wooden carousel horse he has restored in his garage on Nov. 19 on Jekyll Island. The horse was found with others in a pile of trash after Hurricane Katrina, without a foot, and part of the face was rotted away. Three others that Johnson restored have been sent back to the owners but he kept this and another that were thought too expensive to repair. <br>The Associated Press
Wood carver Bill Johnson looks at the old wooden carousel horse he has restored in his garage on Nov. 19 on Jekyll Island. The horse was found with others in a pile of trash after Hurricane Katrina, without a foot, and part of the face was rotted away. Three others that Johnson restored have been sent back to the owners but he kept this and another that were thought too expensive to repair.
The Associated Press
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JEKYLL ISLAND — Bill Johnson is a wood carver who has done well in competitions in recent years.

But the judge with perhaps the best eye for his work was a feathered woodworker.

Johnson carved a pileated woodpecker to scale, painted it and set in the driveway to dry.

Then he heard a ruckus: A territorial male was swooping down and attacking his sticky new rival as it sat on the concrete.

Now 78, Johnson would probably rather be doing something else, but a car wreck a few years ago broke his back, leaving him reliant on a wheelchair but for some occasional painful steps.

“They took my airplanes away from me. They took my boats away from me,” the former government pilot said.

Then, a few years ago, a friend from church invited him to a meeting of wood carvers, one of several arts and crafts groups that thrive among Jekyll Island’s skilled retirees.

“They say I’m a natural,” he said with a shrug. “I can see things in wood and figure out how to get it out. If my eyes can see it, my hands can carve it.”

He’s gotten a lot out of his recently found avocation.

He has plaques, certificates and trophies from a number of art contests, most recently a best of show in the Georgia Artists with DisAbilities competition in October. He won that with an intricately carved model of a three-masted frigate.

“Every cannon in there was hand turned. Each has four wheels,” and each cannon is smaller than a penny, he said.

He spent a lot of time carving a schooner but stopped counting at 800 hours.

Some of the pieces are so small he has to handle them with surgical clamps.

“At the hospital they tell me I should have been a brain surgeon,” he said.

They’ve had a lot of opportunities to tell him because he’s spent a lot of time in surgery and rehab from the crash.

He had spoken at a Shrine Club luncheon in Greenville, S.C., and was on his way home in his wife’s new Tahoe.

“I saw a white movement out of the corner of my eye,” he said.

It was a woman in a station wagon who had run through a traffic signal.

“She was killed instantly. It broke me all to hell and back. I had a broken jaw and sternum,” and his spine was fractured, he said. “I was held together with pins and rods.”

“She ruined my life,” Johnson said, “but in a way, she didn’t.”

Not all of his work is as intricate as the schooners. In his workshop, Johnson has a couple of carousel horses and a unicorn.

The horses are restoration projects while the unicorn he carved from scratch.

The horses were originally carved before 1925 and were on a carousel that was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, he said. During the cleanup, they were pushed into a pile of debris and left rotting until someone figured out what they were and saved them from a landfill, Johnson said.

“Fortunately, they were made of cedar, and cedar doesn’t rot very quickly,” he said.

But they had rotted enough that Johnson had to replace legs and portions of the heads and faces.

He did five for an insurance company and sent them back, but the other two were so degraded that restoration would have cost more than the claims.

“They just told me to keep these two,” he said.

He started far more modestly. A neighbor wanted a cane with a cardinal handle. Johnson obliged him.

“He was just thrilled to death with it,” and then came requests for canes with duck heads, alligator heads and a lot of other animal grips. He gave a lot away in the beginning, but now sells his work.

“It pays for saw blades,” he said.

Like other artists, he’s had work on display at Goodyear Cottage in the island’s historic district. A big turtle sold to someone from Nova Scotia, he has an owl in England and a squirrel holding an acorn is in Tennessee.

He gets some odd requests. A man wants him to carve a set of deer legs he can mount on his car.

He doesn’t know what prompted the request, but he can see the legs in his mind and figures that means he can carve them.

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