April 3, 2012

Our Neighbors: Sowders’ carvings tell a story, sometimes

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — A Swiss-made knife and a piece of wood is all Laurel native Bob Sowders needs to create his own village.

Currently that village boasts several Native Americans, a UK fan hosting up some (Louisville) cardinal food, some cowboys, a hobo and the Biblical character of Moses.

Taking up wood carving about 10 years ago, Sowders said he often watched his uncle, the late Vernon Hedrick, carve. Although Sowders never tried carving while his uncle was living, he decided to try his hand at it a decade ago and was pleased with his efforts.

“Everyone who carves says there is a story behind each figure,” Sowders said. “Some of mine do and some don’t. The reason I make Moses is to give them to churches.”

But one figurine in Sowders’ collection is a hobo that has its own story.

“I just tell people this hobo was from East Bernstadt and traveled around and only got as far as Livingston until he would turn around and come back.

“A lot of the hobos didn’t have to live like that. It’s how they wanted to live, with no responsibilities and no ties. I tell that this man would only go to Livingston, then come back and stay in the 909 tunnel,” Sowders explained. “The 909 tunnel is supposed to be haunted.”

Displayed among the many statues in his collection is one of a man seated in a chair clearly marked with the white background and the letters “UK” in blue on the side. With his mouth open as if in the middle of a cheer of approval, the man holds his holds outright where a movable tray contains a bright red bird. With the letters “Kitty Food” easily seen, a flattened and lifeless cardinal sits on a platter while a larger red bird lurks on a platform.

“I’m not a sports fan but I know how everyone around here gets all tore up over basketball so I made this with the UK and Cardinals,” Sowders explained. “I don’t ever want to make something that offends someone else, but the rivalry between the two schools is something a lot of people get really into.”

Sowders selects the wood for his projects carefully. Sowders uses poplar, redwood and sour wood.

“The sour wood is easy to work with when it is green, but once it gets hard, you can’t do much with it,” he added.

Another oddity in Sowders’ collection of carvings is the “Hillbilly Flossing,” the statue of a hillbilly sitting on a stump with a string run between his toes. Sowders said a friend of his saw something similar to that creation and Sowders revised his own from the description.

His favorite subject for his carvings, however, is the Biblical character Moses. He also said Moses was one of the most difficult projects he has undertaken, due to the extreme details involved in the robe, beard, and hands. One carving of Moses took him more than 40 hours to complete. He used it to pass the time while his wife was undergoing medical treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“The hands, feet and face are always the hardest because of the detail you have to put on them and they are smaller than the other parts of the figures,” he said. “I look at drawings to get an idea of how to carve.”

He’s willing to share his knowledge or even join with other persons interested in carving or learning to carve.

“Anyone’s welcome to come and carve or learn to carve,” he said. “But for beginners wanting to learn how to carve, I have some advice — buy a lot of Band-Aids!”

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
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