“I don’t do what other people want,” says BJ Precourt of his whimsical carved wooden figures. “It’s all my own imagination.” Scavenging wood from the forests surrounding his 36-acre, mostly off-the-grid Mill Spring farm or from the leftovers of a nearby post-and-beam company, Precourt carves frogs, birds, fishes, snakes, and, most famously, his swaggering crows. The creatures are instantly recognizable to a growing body of appreciative collectors, and each comes with its own story.
They all arise from the bedtime stories Precourt made up years ago for his two children, during his former life running a glass business in New Jersey with his wife Julia — until the pressure was too much and an early retirement brought the couple south in the early 1990s. (The company’s named combined his given name, Bob, with his wife Julia’s: “BJ” is the only remnant they carried over to their new, more rustic life.)
They saw the farmhouse on a Monday, and by the end of the week, they’d moved in. Eight years of renovations followed before Precourt set up his workshop in an old barn on the property.
His crow figures all belong to the Top Hat Club, another invention. “The hat’s a prize for winning a particular game,” Precourt explains. “One of the crows is called Wink because he’s the Tiddlywinks champion. And there’s one I call Mumbles, because he’s the mumblety-peg champion.” Not many people these days remember mumblety-peg, a 19th-century children’s game that, in its rawest form, involved throwing pocketknives as close as possible to one’s feet without impaling them — but it’s a product of Precourt’s fondness for those bygone times when, in his opinion, life was simpler. “You worked hard for everything, even for your water,” he says. “You saw only a few people every day.”
The sentiment extends to marketing his own work. He mostly avoids traditional gallery showings and group exhibits and doesn’t maintain a website or ETSY page, since selling online means “I never get to meet the people who buy my work,” he explains. “I like it best when people come to visit.”
Now in his mid-eighties and entirely self taught, Precourt still works up to 12 hours a day and includes antique tools in his arsenal of woodcarving implements. He developed his own finishing process by preserving each piece’s acrylic coloring with a wax seal, applying a scorching blowtorch, and then smoothing the bubbled surface with steel wool to add depth and texture.
Some of his large-scale pieces grow to seven feet, while the life-sized crows often appear as a quartet striding across an unfinished wood base, as though on their way to a party. “They’re never exactly the same,” Precourt says. “Anything can happen.”
BJ Precourt, Mills River. The artist’s work is sold at Garage on 25 (3461 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher, garageon25.com). To arrange a visit to the artist’s studio, call 828-894-3910. On Facebook: BJ the Folk Art Carver.