Farmer Frank Brown: Woodcarving and Old Iron

Bob McCormack's woodcarving pays tribute to farm country.

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Frank Brown with his creator, Bob McCormack. (Photo by Robert Melgar.)

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Stumble on to a tree growing through an abandoned horse-drawn cultivator, and you might see a piece of antique farm equipment ripe for rescue. An artist, though, sees things differently. Take Bob McCormack for instance. In the trunk of a tree that had grown around a cultivator dating to the 1920s, Bob saw a farmer, weary at day's end. And that is precisely the scene he set out to create in a unique woodcarving.

The tree-wrapped cultivator was a casualty of a field drain project. The tree was slated for removal when Bob, who lives in Sparta, Tenn., caught wind of it. "The owner's grandson dug it out for me," Bob says. "The cultivator was broken but I didn't need all the parts, so I used a cutting torch to cut it up."

Once he got the relic home, roots and all, Bob took stock. He was the proud owner of a McCormick-Deering horse-drawn cultivator from about 1922, with a box elder tree growing through it. The trunk was about 20 inches in diameter and 6 feet tall.

Almost immediately, the oddity attracted interest. "When I first brought it home," Bob recalls, "a friend offered me $500 for it, as is, as yard art. But my desire to play was stronger than my desire for $500." An experienced wood carver, Bob already had a project in mind. "I knew from the beginning that I would try to carve a figure of a farmer in that tree. I could see him leaning back over the wheels."

Sizing up a challenge

A less experienced artist might never have tackled the piece. "When I topped the tree, there was a crotch of three limbs," Bob says, "and crotches are skittish to carve. You just don't know how far a natural split will go." But Bob was well familiar with such challenges. As a novice wood carver, he worked with large tree knots, "wood that was twisted or scarred in some way and healed over, the kind of wood that timber cutters discarded."

As time passed, he came to understand the appeal of working with the wood, rather than forcing his will on it. "You have to follow the way the wood leads you," he says. "Sometimes (damage caused by) bugs and worms determine what I do."

A carver for more than 30 years, today Bob focuses primarily on vessels. His McCormick project is by far the heaviest thing he's done. "It bent the axle on the wagon when I hauled it home," he notes. Box elder has proven a tricky medium. "Bugs are attracted to it; it's full of sap. And it rots quickly; it gets kind of doughy, like the inside of a corncob," he says, "pithy almost." The wood tends to tear rather than slice. "I had to work quickly while it was still green," he adds. "The farmer's hat brim is in the crotch of the tree, and that was really difficult. That natural split, as it dried, was a real challenge."

"He belongs to the land …"

As the project unfolded, a sculpture of a seasoned farmer emerged from the log. "He has a very lined face but his feet are roots," Bob explains. "There's no carving from his waist on down. He belongs to the land, to bole and roots. I envision him looking back over to the northeast, tired at the end of the day, seeing Ma come toward him with a glass of buttermilk." And he has a name: Christened by two children, the farmer bears the moniker Frank Brown.

Like every artist, Bob walked a fine line with his carving. "One of the real attributes of an artist is knowing when to quit," Bob muses. "Before I did, I put overalls on him and for fun, I put in a little Bull Durham pouch, with the drawstring with the tag on the end hanging out of his bib pocket."

Three years have passed since Bob called it quits on the tree trunk project. The carving dried in a barn; a final coat of linseed oil awaits. "The wood carves more easily when it's green," Bob says, "but you never know what will happen to it as it dries until it happens. The only thing I worry about now is whether beetles will eat it from the inside out."

Grounded in farm country

Like Frank Brown, Bob's roots are also in the ground. "My dad was a minister and I grew up in farm communities. I worked on farms in Tennessee and Georgia," he says. "Dad always rented land, and I drove implements like that McCormick cultivator. I have mostly good memories of those days, but I used to dream of land that was as flat as a pool table and not rocky. When I got to Indiana and Ohio I thought it must be heaven."

A retired Presbyterian minister, Bob is now an established artist. "For a long time I had confidence that I had manual dexterity," he says, "but I never could draw so I never thought of myself as an artist." Time, though, has a way of changing perspectives, and today Bob looks at the world differently. "My next project?" he thinks out loud. "Well, I have an old rotten peach tree …" FC

For more information: Bob McCormack, 9756 Monterey Hwy., Sparta, TN 38583; e-mail: opaline@blomand.net