Woodcarvings by Mike

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

Growing up, Mike Bailey, 57, remembers watching and helping his grandfather, a leatherworker, as he would craft saddles and bridles, “stuff like that.”

“I loved my granddaddy dearly,” Bailey said. “I didn’t care what my granny was doing, I was there with him. I loved working with him.”

He remembers being baffled when customers – who found his grandfather’s works through word of mouth or stumbling upon acquaintances who vouched for the quality – some from all over Mississippi, but plenty of out-of-staters, too, would come to his shop in small-town Stewart, Mississippi.

“One of the things that always fascinated me, and of course this was way, way pre-internet or anything,” he said, “was the fact that people would come to his shop from all over.”

Now, especially with the help of the internet, Bailey is seeing the same pattern rings true with his own clients, and his work can be found in homes reaching all the way into Italy and Spain. But his work differs slightly, as Bailey’s a woodcarver. The need to craft and the satisfaction he feels through completing a piece, Bailey traces back to watching his grandfather work with tools.

“That connection, making something with my hands – just going from a raw chunk of wood, to a man’s face,” he said. “That connection, more of like my granddaddy, as far as people are now seeking me out … It’s almost the same thing, so it kind of keeps that alive for me.”

For a while, as a young man in his early 20s, Bailey swore he’d leave his hometown, Columbus. For a stint, he did, and he was a biker. He rode around on his ‘67 Triumph Bonneville Chopper, and looking back, he noticed he was always surrounded by artists. From one of his buddies he rode with carving “the coolest looking face” into a cedar post with a pocket knife, to tattoo artists, “writers, singers, players,” he was constantly surrounded by talent. Bailey’s talent extends past woodcarving, too, as he used to be the lead vocalist and lyricist in a band after he stopped riding. Once he fully came in off the road, he settled back down in Columbus and started his craft, which started in the early 2000s, when his parents gifted him a beginner’s woodcarving kit for Christmas, and his love affair for the craft grew from there.

After he started dabbling in the craft on his own, he saw that a woodcarver by the name George Berry was going to be visiting Columbus, to host a live demonstration “mainly for the kids” at the public library. Bailey went and chatted with Berry after the presentation, and “he offered me some tips.” The two struck up an acquaintanceship, and over time and at various shows, they would catch up and Berry would continue to give tips and insight. Eventually, about five or six years after taking up the craft, Bailey showed Berry an example of his work: a Native American face carved into a cypress knee (a spurt or spike of wood, that grows up through the water, above the tree’s hidden roots, often in swampy conditions). Berry was silent while he was looking over Bailey’s work, who had started to get nervous at this point.

“He reached down in his toolbox, he pulled out paperwork for the Craftsmen’s Guild,” Bailey said. “He said, ‘I want you to fill this stuff out, and send it to the Craftsmen’s Guild.’”

At the time, Bailey didn’t think anything of it, and stuffed the paper away somewhere in his shop, thinking there was no way he was good enough. Little did he know, George Berry was a founding member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, so his recommendation was sound.

A year later, Bailey set up at another show, with a couple set up in the booths next to him, both members of the Craftsmen’s Guild. They recommended he apply, and Bailey again deferred, saying he has the application from George Berry.

“He said, ‘George Berry is one of the founding members of the Guild,’” Bailey remembers. “He said, ‘If he gives you the green light, you need to do it.’”

With the newfound information and even more encouragement, Bailey filled out the application. He learned that to become a member of the Guild, artists have to fill out the application, send in three examples of work along with photos of more pieces. Then, the artist’s work is presented to a jury, which decides whether the work “reflects a high degree of competence, professional standards, and artistry in their medium and category,” according to the Guild. Once an artist gets “a green light from them,” then they must complete certain requirements, along with repeating the jury process every three years. In the ninth year of the process, if the jury approves the work again, the artist is considered a journeyman. Bailey said he completed the process about five or six years ago.

“(That was) kind of one of the highlights for me,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good at all. It’s really fun when people kind of validate what you thought was more like a hobby.”

Bailey’s work spans from what he calls his wood spirits, to Native American face carvings, commissioned custom pieces, various figurines, hiking sticks, Christmas-themed pieces, as well as his recent adventure, using a hatchet to carve out spoons, in addition to teaching himself blacksmithing to add certain elements to his pieces and figurines. He used to make some larger pieces, but after winning a bout of cancer in his leg, he’s settled on smaller, more manageable pieces that don’t require going outside and cranking up a chainsaw. Now, his shop is inside his home where he can enjoy the AC, directly to the right of the entrance. He said he and his wife have to clean up the woodchips regularly, but neither one seems to mind.

“She’s just glad she can look over here and see me, isn’t worried about where I’m at,” he said smiling, referring back to his biking days and when he was in a band.

Bailey’s known best for his face carvings, from the wood spirits to Native Americans, to, of course, bikers. His faces – which he will say every woodcarver has their own face, though each one will be different, as no two faces can ever be the same – are more on the haggard side. Bailey doesn’t skimp on wrinkles and character, making the faces “craggly,” as he calls it.

“‘Guy’s had a hard life,’” he once said to his friend about carving faces. “I said, ‘It wasn’t no easy life ahead. That’s kind of the roadmap to your face.’”

Aside from the wrinkles, and the inevitably “long, flowy beard” that wisps down from the face, Bailey said people know his work by his faces’ eyes, as they’re telling. Sometimes, he will even write up a narrative of a carving’s life, which he said his customers seem to be big fans of, and it uses another of his artistic talents, going back to his writing abilities when he would write songs for his band. His pieces, whether cedar, basswood, cottonwood, fruit tree woods (like apple and plum), sweetgum he cuts down himself, or pretty much whatever he can get his hands on, vary in price, anywhere from about five dollars, up to several hundred. Bailey grew up vacationing in the mountains with his family, and he remembers going into shops wanting to buy something, but pieces being too expensive; for his work, he wants to make it “accessible to everyone.”

“It blows my mind, people want to spend their hard-earned money, and I get it, I work for mine,” he said. “I’m very humbled when they’re going to buy my face, and I’m like, ‘Look, man, just the fact that you spent your money, just that means a lot to me, because I know how hard it is to come (by).”

4 Comments
  1. I know this may well and was in the band with him as lead guitar player. Mike was always very talented and full of artistic ideas. Every piece that he does comes with apiece of his heart witch makes it way more valuable. Just hanging out with Mike will lift your spirits always got a kind word and a smile for you. I remember the night his sweet wife walked into a venue that we were playing it was magical even though she was not at first affected it was love at first sight for him. From that night on I watched this man grow as an artist and all around human being. So if you are ever down around Bogger Swamp stop by and have a good visit you will cherish the experience the rest of your life. Love ya Big Bad Botty Daddy.

  2. Hey Mike,
    Carolyn here. Kari’s mom. Do you have any pictures or catalogs of pieces you do? I would really love to see some of them. I loved the angel you made me out of metal. I put her out every Christmas.
    Did Kari tell you I’m moving back to Mississippi in May? I can hardly wait.
    Let me hear from you.

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