RED SPRINGS — As he battles cancer Mike Wilkins finds solace in getting back to his childhood love of carving nature, tribal and family-themed sculptures out of soapstone.
In 2011, while working as a security contractor in Kuwait, the Pembroke native was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Since then, being home on disability has given Wilkins the chance to focus on his art, turning it into something more than a hobby.
“I’ve always worked a regular job and when I would come home in the evening I would do my artwork,” Wilkins said. “This is pretty much what I do now.”
Before working in Kuwait, Wilkins worked at the detention center at the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. Carving was a way to unwind during that time.
“When I would get off work I’d put on some jazz and get out there and carve. It’s a stress reliever. It’s relaxing for me,” he said.
Now it has become more of an occupation, and he devotes most of his time to it.
“I’m re-establishing myself. You know when you have been out of the loop for so long you got to get re-established when you get back home,” he said.
Wilkins was introduced to carving when his father was stationed in Alaska.and he got a first-hand look at some natives making art.
“I saw a couple of Eskimos carving ivory by hand. They were carving walruses and seals — things like that out of ivory — and I was just so fascinated. I saw the little figurines, but I thought there was just a machine somewhere.
“My mom kept trying to pull me away from there but I wouldn’t leave,” Wilkins said.
She finally left and Wilkins got hooked.
“So I sat down. They were on a bear-skin rug, carving ivory,” he said.
He didn’t come in contact with carving again until he was in high school. He had started attending powwows and met a friend in Hollister that gave him his “first lesson in carving.”
He said the friend pointed to his face and asked him what sticks out the farthest, to which Wilkins answered the nose.
“He said ‘for the nose to come out, everything else has to go down’ and he said it’s the same way with the cheekbones. If you want to bring one thing out then you have to push everything around it down.”
After that lesson, carving soapstone became natural to him, Wilkins said.
“That was the only lesson I ever had,” he said. “I did my first piece in high school, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Once Wilkins understood how to bring features out, he started seeing concepts for sculptures in the stone.
“I’ll see something and I go after that, whatever I see,” he said.
Most of the sandstone he finds is from creeks in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Soapstone is a metamorphic rock mostly composed of talc, which makes it soft enough to carve. How hard the sandstone is depends on where it comes from. According to Wilkins, North Carolina has a softer stone. The Maryland and Virginia stone is a lot harder.
“I like that stone if I’m making something that will be handled a lot. You’re going to want to use a harder stone for that,” he said.
One place he gets stones is a creekbed outside Baltimore. He finds the locations through word of mouth from fellow stone carvers.
“There not that many native stone carvers. We all know who we are,” he said.
When he does find a piece he almost immediately knows what he’s going to make by looking at it, Wilkins said.
“I like to see something natural in the stone and go after what I see,” he said.
As Wilkins creates a piece, he takes photos of the process and progress of the piece and then gives the accompanying photo album to the buyer or the person to whom he is giving the piece.
Wilkins doesn’t charge his customers for the piece, he charges them for the time and labor he puts into it.
“You have a lot of time invested,” he said. “You love it but you have to let it go. It’s like getting rid of one of your children.”
Wilkins’ works are available on Facebook. He also carves wooden walking sticks.
Tomaka Sinclair can be reached at 910-416-5865 or [email protected]