When one thinks of an “artist,” visions of pen and paper usually come to mind. Or maybe acrylic paints, a variety of brushes and a blank canvas. But for longtime Okanogan Valley resident Keith Callison, his medium of choice is a sharp knife and a block of basswood.
“My grandfather carved and then my dad,” Callison said. “My dad made it fairly interesting for me. I’ve been carving ever since.”
At age 88, Callison has carved just about everything imaginable. From Christmas and holiday characters, to wildlife, wooden chains, a wooden knife and even a replica of his Gold Wing motorcycle.
Growing up, all of the men in Callison’s family were carvers, he recalled.
“If you have the right wood, it doesn’t take very long,” he said, adding he special orders basswood, which is a soft wood ideal for whittling.
“It’s a really nice wood to carve with,” he said. “I’ve done a little bit (of carving) with other woods, but it doesn’t take me as long with basswood.”
To complete a project, Callison said it usually takes between four-to-five hours. His inspiration often comes from magazines, self-inspired thoughts and the occasional family request.
“Most of these are just carved in one piece, they’re not glued,” his wife, Joyce said. “He has a subscription to a wood carving magazine, and they give hints and tips. In a magazine, nothing is three-dimensional, of course.”
“I like to use prints to get the idea in my head for what I want to do,” he said. “I’ve given a few away, but most of them are for grandkids.”
The couple said they’ve never really sold their items at bazaars or street fairs.
“We’ve never sat at a bazaar to try to sell his wood carvings,” said Joyce. (She is an artist in her own right, making more than 200 pairs of handmade slippers and numerous quilts).
Keith Callison graduated from Oroville High School in 1952 and went on to graduate from Pullman with a degree in horticulture. However, he enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly thereafter.
“In 1957, it was hard to get a job because the draft was going,” he said.
Callison was sent to New York City where he was a food inspector.
“I lived in an apartment in New York City; then I ended up spending probably two or three months in the hospital.”
He was not injured in combat, but rather broke his elbows in a roller-skating escapade. Callison, along with two other fellows that he boarded with were invited to go roller skating with a group of girls.
“We didn’t have skates, so we had to rent them,” he recalled. “One of the skates fell apart. I hit hard and broke my elbows. I was in cast from hand to shoulder for quite a while.”
Following his time in the Army, he returned to Washington state where he worked in the orchard industry doing field work. He started his career in Yakima before making it back to the Okanogan Valley, first in Tonasket then settling in Oroville.
“I think we moved to Oroville in 1997,” Joyce, recalled. “I retired from teaching (in Tonasket) in 1999 and I remember driving back and forth.
“When Keith decided to get out of field work, we bought this (home) from his mom,” Joyce said.
The couple met through a friend, Dick Thayer, while visiting in Canada. At the time, Joyce, an Eastern Washington University graduate, had started a school teaching position in Anacortes.
“We got married and moved back,” she said. “My mother insisted we have a silver anniversary party because ‘you’ll never make it 50 years.’”
They married in 1964 and will celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary this June.
For the aspiring wood carver, Callison offered this advice: “Put on real good gloves. I’ve had a few good nicks, but I haven’t had anything real serious.”
Wood carving is a form of woodworking by means of a cutting tool (usually a knife) in one hand or a chisel by two hands resulting in a wooden figure or in the sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object.
Wood carving is believed to be one of the oldest forms of arts. Wooden spears from the Middle Paleolithic, such as the Clacton Spear, show how humans have shaped wood for over a millennia.
The art and craft of woodcarving continues to survive and advance in tradition around the world thanks to skilled craftsmen, just like Keith Callison.♦
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