If anyone ever invents a working time machine, artist B.J. Precourt might be the first in line to climb aboard — despite an ingrained aversion to technology. “I would have liked living in the 1800s,” he says. “You worked hard for everything, even for your water. You saw only a few people every day. It was a simple life.”
But lacking a time-travel conveyance, Precourt and his wife Julie have created the next best life on the 36 acres they bought 30 years ago in Mill Spring, restoring a 100-year-old farmhouse and barn and dwelling about two-thirds of the way off the grid.
Now a vigorous 82, Precourt works up to 12 hours a day creating his signature whimsical woodcarvings. Made with antique tools and found pieces of wood, his folk art takes the form of birds, frogs, fish, snakes, and other totem-like animals that populate the stories he makes up about them. Some of the creatures are seven feet tall and brightly painted with acrylics. The artist is self-taught, in keeping with his attraction for more self-reliant times, although he’s a longtime collector of antiques and wood carvings.
His given name is is actually Bob, and the “J” in “B.J.” stands for Julie. The combined moniker came along when the couple set up a glass business in their native New Jersey. “It sounded good to answer the phone ‘B&J Glass Company,’” Precourt explains. “And it meant we could save money with just an alphabetical listing in the Yellow Pages and still be near the top when people looked under glass companies.”
But his work as a glazier and home renovator meant days that often began at 5:30 in the morning and lasted until 8:30 at night, when Precourt would return home to put the couple’s two children to bed and tell them the stories from which many of his wood characters would later emerge.
By the time Precourt was in his early fifties, the work pressures had mounted to such a degree that he and Julie decided on an early retirement and started looking for a quieter place to settle, with a milder climate. Road trips south ensued. “It was the first two weeks I’d had off in years,” Precourt says of their explorations in 1994 that eventually brought them to the Tryon area. “We saw the farmhouse on a Monday, bought it on Wednesday, and moved in on Friday,” he recalls. Eight years of restoration work on the house followed before Precourt could set up his workshop in the renovated barn.
The carved figures emerge from the wood Precourt scavenges from the surrounding forests or that he shapes out of the butt ends of white pine logs left over from a nearby post-and-beam company’s manufacturing process. One of his best-loved pieces comprises four top-hatted crows striding across an unfinished wood base as though on their way to a party. “They represent the Top Hat Club, and the hat’s a prize for winning a particular game. One of them I call Mumbles, because he’s the champion at mumblety-peg,” Precourt explains, referring to the (thankfully extinct) 19th-century children’s game that involved hurling pocketknives in the dirt as close to one’s own toes as possible, with the loser obliged to remove the blade from the ground with his teeth. “Another of the crows I call Wink, because he’s the Tiddlywinks champion.”
Precourt has developed his own technique for coloring each piece, using acrylics over a wax sealer and then scorching the painted surface with a blowtorch. The resulting bubbled surface is then smoothed with steel wool to add depth and texture.
One might be hard-pressed to find many of Precourt’s pieces outside of his workshop, although he’s been included in several gallery shows over the years. He doesn’t bother with a website and has little use for computers in general — that way, people are compelled to visit and learn first-hand the stories attached to the creations.
“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. Still, a B.J. Precourt-carved walking stick or animal figure is instantly recognizable, whether it appears in a fine-art gallery setting such as Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace or in the region’s many mountain-craft outlets. But it’s the stories that make the pieces come alive, and those can only be had by visiting Precourt’s studio. “There’s a frog sitting on the wall,” he might begin. “Why isn’t he in the pond?”
Starting this month, B.J. Precourt’s work will be on permanent display at the Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy., galleryflatrock.com). To arrange a visit to the artist’s Mill Spring studio, call 828-894-3910.