Over the last several years, unique hand-carved figures have come in and out of the McDowell Visitors Center, crafted by a former meat cutter from south of Chicago.
Working from his shed, affectionately called “Poverty Hill Woodcarvings,” Jerry Sicard, now a retired McDowell resident, has been carving and selling wooden figures in and out of the county for close to 40 years.
“I never advertise. It’s strictly word of mouth at this point,” Sicard said. “My wife, Kristine, is a volunteer at the Visitors Center and she’s been able to help me display my figures for the public. From what I can tell, they’re selling pretty well.”
Sicard’s venture into woodcarving began in south Chicago, where one class eventually started what would become a four-decade passion.
“It started out as a hobby, back in ’79 or ’80,” said Sicard. “It was the middle of winter, and my best buddy asked me if I wanted to attend a woodcarving class. Since then, it’s just turned into something bigger.”
Born and raised in a small town in Illinois, Sicard moved to McDowell in 1983 after taking round-about trips through Western N.C. whenever he could to experience what he deemed comparatively consistent weather.
“I was working as a meat cutter at the time, I did meat for about 57 years all told. There was an Ingles store in Black Mountain that wanted to hire me, so I bought a house in Marion and have stayed here ever since. You’d get these cold fronts in Chicago periodically, whereas compared to here, you’d have a few months summer, a few months winter, so weather was a good factor in coming down here.”
Here, Sicard would spend his spare time in his shed, carving wooden figures and working on miscellaneous projects.
“I’d spend maybe 15 hours, sometimes 25 on a project, and I would look forward to doing something for the next day or look forward to finishing it,” said Sicard. “There’s been a few times where I’d have something there, but in process, and my wife would come in around 11 or so at night and say, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ But I couldn’t stop because you’ve got to see more, and then I’d have to go into work the next morning. If you’re not an artist, I don’t think you can understand that feeling.”
Since retiring in 2012, Sicard has had more free time to spend on his figures.
In his workspace, surrounded by model heads, finished products and collectibles from all across the globe, Sicard begins his process with a single block of basswood and works with assortment of gouges and detail knives.
After carving is done, the figure is washed, scrubbed, dried for a day, stained and painted with acrylics, then dipped in boiled linseed oil to give the figure an alluring shine. Sicard describes the process as “on-and-off,” usually working between projects.
“I don’t usually do one from start to finish,” said Sicard. “I’ll get going on one and I look down the street and see someone that inspires me, maybe with a cane or a distinct feature, and I see another character. I feel that backing off helps if I’m working too fast. A lot of times they’ll be two-thirds done, I’ll be watching TV at night and just look at it, and you notice something you didn’t catch before like one hand’s longer than the other or something’s missing.”
On a few occasions, certain mistakes can be mended into bigger opportunities.
“I was carving a character one day and I broke his leg. I wasn’t far along and it just snapped off,” recalled Sicard. “But I took advantage of it and redesigned the character into a pirate with a peg leg. Wood is very forgiving. You make a mistake, sometimes you break a hand, you can drill a hole and make another hand.”
Kristine Sicard, Jerry’s wife and volunteer at the Visitors Center, describes herself as her husband’s best critic.
“I’m pretty straightforward with him,” said Kristine. “I’ll usually just tell him, ‘That nose is too fat’ or ‘what about this?’ I don’t know how he can take a wood and make something out of it, but it’s his therapy.”
After years of carving as a hobby, a chance encounter with one of Sicard figures – a small carpenter figurine called “Grinlin” – started the trend of selling his work.
“He wasn’t but a small little thing. I made three of him and there was a gentleman in Florida who wanted to buy him. I didn’t want to sell him at first, but he named a price and I sold him,” said Sicard. “Then, I was told that I needed to put my name on it; the guy was apparently collecting them. I went back, signed my name and I thought, ‘Hey, there might be something to this!’”
Since then, Sicard has been selling and displaying his work at multiple venues throughout western N.C., including the inaugural Mountain Glory Festival in 1983.
In McDowell specifically, they’ve been a crucial commodity at the McDowell Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, which has helped Sicard’s figures cross county and even state lines.
“People coming in through town will see them, buy them or even tell their friends about them,” said Sicard, who receives his biggest traffic during Christmastime. “I had a lady from Minnesota call around Thanksgiving, she bought a Santa from there and, sight on scene, asked for three more.”
In one international instance, Sicard received a letter that one of his Uncle Sam figures was spotted in Tuscany, Italy. He said he was “thrilled that my little guy is sitting in a mantle somewhere all the way in Italy.”
Prices for figures at the Visitors Center vary, ranging from $60 to $85, and those making personal requests to carve a figure are based around a ballpark price, which Sicard has insisted as a measure to prevent overcharging a customer.
However, on one or two occasions, Sicard has had to turn down offers due to the specific nature of the request.
“I can’t do something on spec,” said Sicard. “I’m OK with offers as long as they don’t ask for specific details like ‘my husband wears glasses, and he has a nose like this.’ Then it becomes work. If I’m working, it starts off as one thing and may come out completely different. I had a woman one time request a figure for Don Quixote. And I tried to get all the features down and I eventually had to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this, it’s just a bit too much.’ And she was nice about it, she understood.”
Nevertheless, sometimes saying goodbye to his figures wasn’t always easy for Sicard.
“For a while, I had such a hard time selling something because I’d get so attached,” said Sicard, who has amassed a collection of unsold figures dating as early as 1983. “I’ve got two or three that are not for sale. I’ve seen them start off as scratching on wood and I can’t get rid of them. Other than a couple like that, what are you gonna do?”
In the end, whether the figures are sold or kept in his shed, it’s the act of woodcarving itself that Sicard finds the most appealing.
“When you get done with it, and he’s been in that block of wood, in a tree in the woods, it’s such a good feeling,” said Sicard. “Woodcarving’s taught me to notice people, notice profiles, notice people. I used to teach a class for retirees up in Banner Elk, and no matter what they made, whether it was as good as the person next to them, it was theirs; it was unique, it was how they saw it and I’d be able to pick any of their figures out of a show somewhere. It’s your makeup. It’s your thoughts, out of the brain and into the wood.”
Jerry Sicard’s woodcarvings are on display at the McDowell Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center. To learn more about “Poverty Hill Woodcarvings,” contact Sicard at (828) 775-2294 or email@example.com.