HOUSTON – Thanks to a 24-year-old bullet wound, Robbie Pipkin can’t feel anything below his knees.
He usually uses a dull, gray aluminum pole to get around. That’s out of choice, not necessity. He has a few dozen intricately carved walking sticks that he could use for getting from place to place.
But the sticks mean too much to him to risk during everyday use.
“I lost one, and I was about to take out a newspaper ad,” the 39-year-old Houston resident said. “I found it in a creek, right where I lost it. It must’ve slid off my four-wheeler.
“After that, I said, ‘Uh-uh. I want something that I don’t have to worry about losing,’” he continued. “I mean, I’ll use one of the good ones if I’m going to Tupelo for a doctor’s visit or something, but that’s about it.”
He’s been offered as much as $500 for a walking stick, but it’s hard to part with his creations. A lady bought a stick from him and brought it back. She said she thought Pipkin was going to cry when she took it from him. It was a $200 stick.
“When people see them, they always say, ‘Why don’t you have your stuff on display in a gallery somewhere?’” he said. “Man, I don’t know.”
A bad night
Pipkin said he’s whittled for most of his life, and started working on walking sticks about eight years ago.
In a way, the seeds of his art were planted by that bullet wound.
At 15, Pipkin was walking home with a friend at night, when a neighbor opened his front door and started firing. He said one bullet grazed his underarm, then another went into his mid-chest, “rattled around a bit and settled at the spine.”
The neighbor was sentenced to two 40-year terms.
“He served six years in Parchman and got out,” Pipkin said with a shrug. “He was just drunk.
“It probably saved my life. The way I was heading, I would’ve been dead or in prison by the time I was 21,” he continued. “I was on the verge of being a straight hoodlum, but that slammed the door on that.”
He was told he would never walk again, but refused to listen and became proficient with arm crutches. He got tired of those, and found himself a stick.
“I used that until it broke,” he said, “then I got another one.”
In the woods
Pipkin takes his four-wheeler into the woods, where he looks for straight sticks. He prefers hickory because it doesn’t split. He’s worked with cedar and dogwood, though it’s tough to find a straight piece of dogwood.
“I might find seven or eight sticks, but I’ll use one or two of them,” he said. “It depends on what they look like after I get the bark off.”
He strips them on his back porch, then lets them dry on his kitchen floor. He sits at his coffee table and carves with a set of tools him mom gave him. One stick can take two months, depending on the number of carvings.
“I use true oil to finish them. It’s a lot better than polyurethane. It never flakes or comes off with age,” he said. “I pour it out in a puddle and take my fingers and spread it out. When you put a lot of coats on it, it takes as long to finish as it does to decorate.”
One of his finished pieces features a phoenix, a rabbit, a deer, a panther, a turtle, a feather, a knife and more. He carves strictly measured geometric shapes and interlocking arrowheads, as well as Indian faces and dancing girls.
“I’ve always been fascinated with symmetry and geometry,” said Pipkin, who studied art at Delta State. “Like the tomahawk. I couldn’t do one. I had to do two and have them facing apart. Symmetry.”
Late night work
With television news or an outdoors show providing a background, Pipkin works throughout the day for 30 minutes here, two hours there.
“But I do most of my work late at night. No distractions. The telephone ain’t ringing. People don’t come by. It’s quiet. That’s when I get serious with the work,” he said. “I used to have a sign on the door telling people not to ring the doorbell before 11 a.m. I’d stay up all night working.”
The carving costs his body more than it used to, so that’s cut down on the all-night flights of creativity. He has carpal tunnel syndrome, which adds a layer of difficulty to working with his hands.
In addition, there are consequences to working with sharp tools.
“I’ve got scars all over my hands. I get cut all the time,” he said. “I’ll slip and drive the edge through my hand or my finger. It happens.”
Patience and time
Aches and pains are obstacles, not barriers. Pipkin is dedicated to the slow, steady process that turns an ordinary stick into a work of art.
It’s a process Pipkin’s 12-year-old son, Trey, hopes to learn.
“He likes it, but he doesn’t have my patience,” Pipkin said. “I didn’t have the patience coming up, either.
“He thinks he ought to be able to do something like I do right out of the box. I tell him I’m still learning. I’ve been doing this for eight or so years. I tell him it takes time.”
Time and patience are tricky things for an artist. There’s work to do, always more work to do, and the clock keeps right on ticking.
“If I live to be 1,000 years old, there’s no way I could accomplish everything I’ve got up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Ain’t enough time.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal