Photos Derek Bell
Many great talents are very young when they realize they were born to fly. The late Michael Jackson, at the tender age of 5, captivated audiences with his musical talent and dance moves that would burn up the stage. Dick Cheney left Yale University due to poor grades, but at 25 years old he used his brilliant political mind to become one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.
Although these are only two of the many examples of people who find their calling early on, there are rare instances when driven human beings have to leave the cake in the oven a little longer to rise. Rome is lucky to have a gentleman who, at 37 years of age, discovered his passion. Jeremy Smith, owner of Other Level Sculptures, is proof that even though flowers are more abundant in spring, the late bloomers are sometimes the brightest of all.
Now 41, Smith worked the local restaurant circuit for most of his adult life, totaling around 20 years. And since he is a Roman, making friends by tending bar and waiting tables was something that came naturally to him. He is full of charisma, which led him to write stand-up comedy. Whenever there was a chance to perform at local nightspots, he was first on the list of Rome’s funniest comedians.
Still, something wasn’t quite hitting the satisfaction button for him; he knew there was more and just couldn’t put his finger on it. Then, his wife, Amy, asked him to help her out with a task that would ultimately drive his professional life into something more meaningful.
“I always wanted to be a creative person. That’s why I worked in restaurants, tried to be a musician and performed on many stages as a comedian. But I had to make an honest assessment. First, my face is just too pretty to be taken seriously doing standup,” he laughs.
“So, as I began to make this transition. I started to explore different creative outlets. In October of 2012, my entire life changed,” he continues. “My wife asked me to carve a pumpkin for her pre-K class. She didn’t say, ‘Hey, Jeremy, do you mind carving this pumpkin for me because you are a wonderfully creative and talented person?’ It was more like, ‘Will you please carve this pumpkin? Because I just don’t have time to get it done.’
“After I carved that pumpkin, there was something I enjoyed so much about the process. I knew this was the direction my life would be taking me.”
Using Google as a road map for his carving, Smith decided to give this task his all. He researched the great pumpkin carvers – the artists who were taking the craft far beyond the triangle eyes and gap-toothed grin we often see on front porches in the fall.
“I researched guys like Ray Villafane and Jon Nell. There is also another artist, who had a lot of how-to videos online; his name is Scott Cummins and his website is called Pumpkin Gutters,” Smith explains. “What I began to notice was that all of these people had art backgrounds. Almost every one of them was an art teacher. These guys really inspired me to learn the art of carving, but I didn’t know if I would be taken seriously.”
With no formal art training and armed with information gathered online, his next stop was Michael’s to buy a kit for carving. This $12 clay sculpting-ribbon tool kit would be the start of a great adventure for Smith. When his first project was completed, he, too, posted his work online. The spark, coming in the form of a request from his bride, ignited in him the fulfillment he’d sought for so very long.
“I was doing things at Blue Fin that would have gotten me fired at any other place on planet earth,” Smith laughs as he explains how he started Other Level Sculptures. “Everyone I talked to there, I told them about my carving. It was almost like finding Jesus. I just could never stop thinking about it, talking about it and doing it.”
Soon, the urge to venture beyond pumpkins consumed Smith until he was whittling on everything he touched.
“You see, I played this all like a video game! I had reached the first level, which was pumpkin carving,” Smith says with the look of a kid on Christmas in his eyes. “When the pumpkins ran out, I had to get to the next level; I had to carve something. So, I would carve Buddha images out of carrots. I even carved a parsnip once. Then I wanted something more permanent, so I started using candles.
“The reason I moved to candles,” he continues, “is that all of the fruits and vegetables I was carving would eventually die. It was all ephemeral art. I wanted something that was going to stick around a little longer, so I kind of eased into the water very slowly.”
As soon as he was comfortable moving forward, he purchased a $60 dremel tool and began to create art from wood pieces.
“You’ve got to understand. I was waiting tables and we really needed every penny we made. So, for me to spend $60 on a dremel was a really big step, and it took a lot convincing for my wife to sign on,” he says. “I used it to carve a Buddha out of a Styrofoam block that won first place at the Coosa Valley Fair in 2013. It was the first time I’d ever won anything in my entire life.”
Until then, Smith had never felt the joy of having someone – other than his family – see and appreciate his worth. He still treasures the ribbon he received from the fair, which seems to stand as the first sign that we was on the right track. Now it was time to, literally, get down to business.
“My neighbor down the street gave me a piece of wood from his woodpile to carve. He was going to throw this piece of wood into a brick oven and set it on fire. I rescued it and for four months I carved on this thing. All I did was work on this piece in my spare time,” he says. “My friends and co-workers thought I was insane. I put an insane level of effort into getting where I am today, so maybe they were right.”
He sold that piece of wood, one that would have been put to fire, for $1,000 before he’d completed the work. An Americanized version of a European Green Man he called “The Grin” paid for his tools and put some money in the family coffers. Other Level Sculptures was born.
In the summer of 2014, he traded his pen, pad and apron for a Husqvarna 445 chain saw with a 16-inch bar. He also added a carving kit that included a 12-inch, dime-tip bar that he could attach to his saw for more detailed work. Then, it was time to search the city in hopes of finding residents who had cut down large trees. He gathered enough wood to get him started and began working on his stockpiled collection of logs.
One of his first wood carvings, a massive tree stump in Maplewood, was shaped into a blooming flower. Owners of the property, Bob and Regina Davis, have landscaped around the piece, which is now an exciting feature in the neighborhood. The Rome News Tribune even featured his work on the front page because of all the attention from passersby. Ironically, this budding artist would call this work “The Bloom,” and Smith is forever grateful to the Davises’ role in helping him get his start.
“I’d never used a chainsaw in my life until I started that project,” he says. “It is one of the most dangerous hand tools in the world, so this shows how determined I am to work as a carver and how satisfied I am after the work is done.”
Smith was also commissioned by Bill Fann, city manager of Cedartown, Ga., to create a Trail of Tears memorial in Big Spring Park. The piece was carved from a large stump as well. It features the busts of a Native American man, woman and child. The man wears an angry scowl, the woman a teary face and the child a frightened brow.
“I wanted to show all of the different emotions the Native Americans must have felt during those very terrible times in our history; the times when they were taken from their homes and forced to go out West,” Smith says. “I called it ‘Removal.’”
To take his work a step further, he connected with Rome City Arborist Terry Paige. Smith wanted to learn everything he could about trees so that he could become more educated about the types of trees he carved and what was possible when working with them.
“Terry Paige is a wealth of information about trees,” Smith says. “If you talk to him for just five minutes, you’ll learn everything there is to know about the trees in this area. He is gurutastic and I love him to death. He is one of Rome’s treasures.”
In recent years, Smith has been asked to carve pieces for businesses like Ford, Gittings and Kane and Harvest Moon, to other local government commissions. One gentleman even sent him a piece of wood by mail after interviewing several other artists from all over the country for the job. Smith carved the small log into a branch with lovely blossoming flowers and leaves that look as if they are blowing in the wind before sending it back to a very pleased customer.
Like any business, Smith hopes Other Level Sculptures will allow him to make enough money to support his family. However, when he tells the story of a lady who wanted a totem pole in her front yard, the reason for his commitment to carving becomes clear.
Because there were really no totem poles in this region, he used the opportunity to carve the symbols associated with the Native Americans of this area. The top is adorned with a flying eagle and the tip of his wing folds into the headdress of a Native American chief. Under the chief’s chin is the flowing mane of a horse and the base bares the heads of wolves.
“While I was working on this piece, traffic would slow down to see what I was carving. Some of them would even stop,” Smith recalls. “One lady got out of her car, walked over to me and started crying. She told me that her daughter’s favorite spirit animal was an eagle. She went on to tell me that her daughter had been killed in a tragic domestic violence incident a few years back and she eventually asked me to do an eagle in her front yard. That’s why I do this. I want people to look at my work and be able to feel some kind of emotion.”
Just as the words leave his mouth, a young lady walks into Darkside of the Moon and over to the bar-top table where we sat. Obviously a friend to Smith, after a brief catch-up she looks down at the iPad in front of him.
“Wow!” she says. “What did you make that from?” pointing to the UGA bulldog mascot on the screen.
“It’s something I carved,” Smith answers with another one of his beaming, child-like smiles.
“Carved? Carved it from what?” she asks.
“From wood,” he answers.
“That’s wood?” she says with a look of amazement and disbelief.
Smith stares down at the tablet in front of him as ornate works of art pulled from the raw and formless gifts of nature look back at him and says, “I’d never won anything in my life. It’s nice to feel like I’m finally winning.” VVV
For more information about Other Level Sculptures, “like” the Facebook page. Smith will also be carving pumpkins in partnership with Petit Creek Farms and is available for consultations. Contact him at 706-331-0837.