The long reach of the COVID-19 pandemic has left few areas of life untouched — even if those areas happen to be off the grid. It brought a noticeable change to the rural woodcarving studio of 89-year-old folk artist BJ Precourt, who thrives on interaction with visitors, sharing the stories behind his wooden menagerie of strutting top-hatted crows, perky rabbits, and weathered mountain men.
“Very few people came here during the worst of COVID,” says the artist, who resides in Mill Spring. “There weren’t many people riding around visiting places.”
It was a hardship for an artist whose pieces, by design, rarely appear outside his own shop. “I don’t like to have too much of my work in galleries because I never get to meet the people who buy my work that way,” he explains.
Happily, a trickle of visitors has reappeared at the studio during recent months, many of them new faces — folks who delight in the 100 or so carved figures that fill the workshop, sprung from stories Precourt invented for his children while running a large, New Jersey-based glass-manufacturing business.
That was decades ago, before he retired. Precourt moved to the mountains in 1994.
His carving is a means of personal expression, not a sales-oriented activity, which became clear to a regional gallery owner who began buying Precourt’s carvings in bulk some months ago and kept asking for more — so much more that it became hard for the artist to keep up with the demand.
“You realize your older frailties,” says Precourt, who came to an amicable agreement to end the gallery relationship. Once able to carve 12 hours a day, he now follows a somewhat reduced studio schedule, although he’ll welcome any visitors, easily spotted from his farmhouse, who might happen by when he’s not working.
The artist uses antique tools to make his figures, scavenging the wood from the forest that surrounds his 36-acre farm, or from leftover pine discarded by a nearby post-and-beam factory. Brightly colored with acrylics applied over a wax seal, each piece is given texture and depth by Precourt’s signature process: blowtorching the surface and then smoothing it with steel wool.
A long-time collector of antique carving, Precourt is self taught. He prizes traditional techniques and the plainer lifestyle of simpler times, in keeping with his self-directed restoration of the 100-year-old farmhouse he and his late wife bought all those years ago.
Living at least “two-thirds off the grid,” Precourt has no interest in communicating via e-mail or text, much less maintaining a website. He prefers person-to-person encounters. “I enjoy telling stories,” he says. And though he’s still happy to sell a piece if a visitor shows interest, he remarks, “I only carve for myself.”
BJ Precourt, Mill Spring. The artist can arrange studio tours by appointment: 828-894-3910.