By Jackie Sheckler Finch | Photography courtesy of Mike and Lynn Johnson
Combining designs and words, a former school teacher creates walking sticks with a storyline carved into them.
When Mike Johnson was a little boy in Walnut Grove, Mississippi, he loved to watch his dad sit with friends and whittle. The men would talk about whatever crossed their minds as curly loops of wood fluttered to the ground.
Seeing their skilled hands skimming knives along sticks and smelling the fresh cut scent of wood shavings was fascinating.
“But they weren’t making anything,” Johnson says. “They were just whittling.”
Of course, back then Johnson was deemed too young to handle a knife and join that whittling crew. It wasn’t until he grew up and became a school teacher in the mid 1970s that Johnson started his own woodworking.
Johnson, though, was not just whittling for the sake of shaving slivers of wood. He was carving butterflies and other jewelry items that led to his talent for making unique “story sticks.” The craftsmanship and artistry of Johnson’s story sticks have earned him membership in the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi.
“The way I got started was my oldest sister asked me to carve some small wooden pieces for jewelry,” he says. “I tried butterflies but my first ones were very crude and didn’t look very good.”
Johnson kept at it and began adding designs to his carvings. In 1990, he decided to combine designs and words to create his unusual story sticks – walking sticks with a storyline carved into them.
“The first story stick I did honored my grandfather James Johnson who fought in the Civil War,” Johnson says. “His widow had very extensive battle records starting in 1861 so I used those to carve a complete account of his military service.”
Adding images of the U.S. and Confederate flags to represent both armies, Johnson then carved a three-dimensional head of a Confederate soldier to the top of the stick.
“That stick won’t be sold to anybody,” he says. “That one is for family.”
When he retired in 1995 after 32 years as a high school math teacher and basketball coach, Johnson began devoting more time to his carving. His wife Lynn, also a retired teacher and a reading specialist, helps maintain his ScatCat Art studio and website.
A favorite family memory prompted a story stick featuring a red-headed woodpecker poking his head out of his safe hidey hole.
“As little kids, we were scared of thunderstorms,” Johnson recalls. “We’d go running to our mother who would hug us close and recite a poem by Elizabeth Roberts called ‘The Woodpecker.’ That would always calm us down.”
On the story stick, Johnson carved the words of the poem and the figure of a woodpecker snuggling in his hole “when the streams of rain pour out of the sky, and the sparkles of lightning go flashing by, and the big big wheels of thunder roll.”
That stick was sold to a friend in California who persuaded Johnson to part with it. “I wanted somebody to have it who would appreciate it as much as I did,” he explains.
Creating story sticks is so time consuming that Johnson estimates he completes only three or four a year. “You have to be careful and pay attention because if you’re distracted you might cut off a piece of wood that you didn’t mean to,” he says.
“Once you take something off, you can’t put it back on so I’ve had to put some things in the fireplace when they didn’t turn out like I wanted them to.”
Some of his story sticks are commissioned by people who have a definite story in mind. Other folks just sit with the carver until a story line evolves. And some already-completed story sticks are waiting in Johnson’s studio to catch the eye of new owners.
Most of his sticks are fashioned from saplings he harvests on his property. Some folks actually use the sticks for walking, Johnson says, while others keep them for decorative purposes. The one-of-a-kind sticks on his website range in price from $250 to $375.
A stick he recently completed for a Native American in Louisiana featured arrowheads and feathers and words from the Trail of Tears: “We Choctaws choose not to live by the laws the white man has made for us, rather to live the best we can in our own way.”
For a story stick he carved for some people in Scotland, Johnson chose to include words from a song that bluesman Jimmy Reed wrote called “Boll Weevil.”
“It goes ‘Down in Mississippi where cotton grow tall …boll weevil wear overalls’,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know but, back in the day, boll weevil was the code word for a land owner. An interesting bit of history.”
An avid reader, Johnson says he sometimes picks up ideas for sticks from something he has read. “I just made a stick with a quote I found that I really liked from science fiction writer Aldous Huxley: ‘The lives of people like you and me are one long argument. Desires on one side, woodpeckers on the other’.”
Asked if he has carved any story sticks for his wife, Johnson laughs. “All the sticks are hers. She always says they are so good. I might not be too proud of them and don’t consider myself an artist but she is proud of them. That’s good enough for me.”
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