John Dickens uses his detailed carvings to express his love for winged creatures
by Jordan Cobbs
Photos by Cassie Clark
To John Dickens, birds are fascinating creatures. Beautiful, too. That’s why he likes to carve likenesses of them. He studies a piece of bass wood with an eye for what it could become. Years of skillfully sliding a blade through the wood grain have taught him this, as shavings collected at his feet. From his basement shop he transforms a block of wood into a carving of a bird. It could be any bird, from a snow owl to a towhee to a cardinal. His carvings are known for their extraordinary detail, from the layering of the tiniest of feathers to the paint scheme he employs.
To some, Dickens of Abingdon, is a humble genius. His wood carvings have earned him membership in the Southern Highland Crafts Guild. It’s well known that for three decades he was a shop teacher in public schools, teaching kids how to build things. What many may not know is he’s also an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served as an engineer building various structures for the troops. There he was exposed to all manner of jungle birds, which made him appreciate all winged creatures even more.
“When you have a quiet zone or a noisy zone, either one of them…you can tell what’s there. Birds and animals aren’t dumb, and they know exactly what’s in the woods,” he said. “You can walk up and it’s dead quiet, you know something’s wrong.”
Birds don’t keep secrets, he said. “I’ll tell you more than you’ll wanna know about that, too,” he added, sitting in his basement workshop, the air hinting at the smell of wood shavings.
For instance, the normal chickadee call, he said, is chickadee chickadee chickadee, but when a predator comes close, the faster the call becomes. But when an apex predator like a hawk comes around, Dickens noted, the chickadee goes dead quiet so as not to give away its position.
“But up until that point, it’s warning warning warning and it’ll go faster and faster, and all the different birds have a different call, it’s fascinating. It’s the same as in the jungle. In that case, the predators are people,” he noted.
Originally from Carrol County, Va. Dickens comes from a line of carpenters and brickmasons that stretches back 500 years. After graduating from high school in Galax, Dickens went into the Army as an engineer, where he was mostly stationed in Thailand when his unit was deployed to Vietnam.
He remained in the Army for a few years, receiving jungle warfare training in Panama. One time he was also placed in a riot control unit that was sent to Washington, D.C., to protect the Pentagon from anti-war protestors. He was given a rifle equipped with a bayonet but no bullets.
“Our plan was, if there were too many of them coming, we’re running the other direction,” he said, laughing at the thought.
After serving with the Army, Dickens tried his hand at construction.
“I was down here at Radford and that wind was howling through, and I was trying to put an air conditioning unit on (top of a building) and I decided that wasn’t my bag, so I went down and signed up for community college here at Wytheville.” After two years at Wytheville Community College, and one year at East Tennessee State University, Dickens earned an Industrial Arts degree to be a shop teacher. He started at Saltville Elementary School and remained an educator for 30 years.
Dickens had been carving for fun since his 20’s, but after retiring from teaching in 2002, he began to take art more seriously. He tried painting. “I had never had any art lessons, so my painting was just extremely detailed. I’d paint every pore in the face and every mole and all this stuff and nobody wants that. But with birds and animals, that’s what you want, the extreme detail, it works out that way. You do that with carving a person and they really get offended with you, they don’t like it,” he said.
His bird carvings vary in the number of hours taken to complete, from a songbird taking five hours to a large turkey carving taking up to 50 hours. He takes inspiration from the birds that he sees in the trees of his backyard and in books. His favorite is the wren because of its high intelligence. When chased by a bigger bird, Dickens said, the wren will land and scurry under a log or in a bush to avoid being seen.
Although retired from the classroom, Dickens still teaches, passing on a love of wood carving to a younger set.
“One of the biggest joys is teaching, you get some of these little kids, you know, and they’re dead serious. Some people are cut out to do it and some aren’t. If they start talking and waving their knife around, it’s social hour, and you take their knife away,” he noted.
It’s the quiet ones that often surprise him most. “They focus entirely, and some of the others who are considered the A-plus students can’t do it at all because they can’t focus,” he said.
Just two years after he retired from teaching, Dickens achieved the feat of getting into the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which features only the most elite craftworkers in the south. Dickens’ work can be seen at the Holston Mountain Artisans Shop, where he is a featured member, and you can also find his work for sale online at https://www.southernhighlandguild.org.
“That’s a matter of pride, if you get good enough, that thrilled me to death. I got in in 2004. The Southern Highland, that’s like the Pulitzer Prize of carving, to get in there.”
He added: “It’s doing what you enjoy and achieving as much as you can, and it doesn’t matter whether it's the carving, or whether it’s when you’re in the military, or whether it’s that I can run 10 miles. Every stage of your life is just you doing the best you can and then you take pride in your achievement.”