“I was just killing time in between killing fish.”
There aren’t many artists who can give that reason for why they began their creative pursuits. But for those who know Steve Pickett, it’s probably not a surprise.
Steve may be best known more for his family-owned trout farm, which stocks many locally owned Chattanooga restaurants with fresh rainbow trout, than for his artwork.
But that is quickly changing.
For the past few years Steve has sold his handmade woodwork alongside his trout at the Chattanooga Market. “I was initially approached about selling my fish at the Market, but I really wanted to have a multi-use booth where I could sell my woodwork too,” Steve says.
Like the trout farm, the fine craft of woodworking runs in Steve’s family. His passion started as a hobby when he inherited a set of carving tools from his great-uncle Otis Pickett. Wheelchair-bound as a young man from a hunting accident, uncle Otis began a career in furniture making and restoration—a career he continued until his death about 15 years ago.
When his 80-year old, Swiss-made chisels were passed down to Steve, the tools piqued his artistic nature. “I always drew as a kid—comic books and stuff, and I still do that. All through high school and college I wrote and drew and had a real creative streak in me,” Steve says. However, he never imagined he could actually make a living as an artist.
“I guess going to a country school we didn’t have much of an art program, so I never really thought I could make a living at it.” However, after graduating from UTC with a Criminal Justice degree Steve moved to Colorado and was accepted into the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design where he studied fine art for three years.
It wasn’t until he returned to Sequatchie County to help run the family trout farm that he began to “noodle around” with woodwork. After mastering the hand tools, Steve moved to working with electrical implements, which sped up the process tremendously.
Steve spent the next ten years refining his skills and technique, which is evident in the fine detail of his work. His workshop and gallery, which Steve and his father built on the farm, houses an array of original woodwork pieces—many completed and a few still in progress. There are the familiar bowls and spoons that serve as a mainstay of Steve’s repertoire. But Steve’s true passion is in his detailed wooden sculptures—whose only function lies in their artistic beauty and quality of craft.
The two-foot tall mermaid that takes center stage in his second-floor gallery is a testament to Steve’s passion and ability. The sculpture was created from an old cedar tree that fell on Steve’s property. In fact, the vast majority of wood he uses in his work comes from naturally fallen trees on the heavily wooded, 150-acre farm.
“When a tree comes down I’ll go and get it—if I can get to it—especially if it’s something of high quality—maple, poplar, walnut, cedar—all of those are great carving woods,” Steve says.
After retrieving the wood, he typically takes it to his neighbor’s sawmill (an added bonus of living in the country). Prior to using the sawmill, Steve cut the original logs by hand with a chainsaw, which slowed down the process tremendously.
Usually, Steve doesn’t have a preconceived concept about what form the wood will take. He sketches initial ideas for 30 minutes or so and begins roughing in the wood with a chainsaw to shape the beginning angles of the figure. Next comes the chainsaw wheel, a tool Steve warns could take out a limb or worse if not used with extreme care.
“From there, it’s just a step down to smaller and smaller tools,” he says.
With each change of chisel, the figure of a whimsical mermaid will begin to emerge as if by magic from the rough chunk of wood. In this case, Steve chose to use cedar for his sea creature. The wood, known for its red hue and distinct fragrance, is inherently resistant to rot due to naturally high levels of arsenic.
To create the scalloped scales of the mermaid’s tail Steve uses a rotary tool (much like those found in a dental office) with varying sizes of carbide burrs.
“The burrs get down to really small diamond tips if I want to do super fine detail,” Steve says. “With woodcarving, you can get to a certain level of detail, but it’s not like clay where you’re going to cast it. Because of the grain you can only go so far, and after that you really can’t do a whole lot more.”
The mermaid, which took Steve about 35 hours to complete, is his favorite type of woodworking piece to make. Like most artists, he relishes the creative process where the perceptions of time and place vanish. “When I’m creating something (like the mermaid) I’m kicking back, sipping some whiskey, and carving,” Steve adds. “That’s what I’ve always loved about any kind of artistic project—when your mind hits that zone, and it’s completely freeing and exciting.”
Eventually, Steve hopes to turn his ever-growing hobby into a full time job. The next skill he plans to master is furniture making. His single and double cedar porch swings have become increasingly popular at the Market. Steve is also receiving more and more requests for custom pieces—everything from one-of-a-kind bannisters to bread bowls.
A majestic six-foot tall figure of a woman is among one of the largest pieces he has made, which sold at the Market earlier this year. Steve confesses the challenge of creating the bigger pieces lies in the balance between the time it takes to create and the cost of the finished work, especially if it is not commissioned. He doesn’t mind making spoons and bowls—the smaller items that sell well—but he doesn’t want to become a cookie-cutter woodcarver. For Steve, uniqueness is synonymous with inspiration.
Story by Julie Jackson
Photography by Chris Thomas