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'THE eyes ARE THE KEY'

MAYFLOWER CARVER WINS NATIONAL RECOGNITION FOR CARICATURES

By Sara Greene

This article was published October 12, 2008 at 3:44 a.m.

— Woodcarver Roger Stegall of Mayflower keeps his art alive through handcarved cowboys, Civil War soldiers and hillbillies.

It hasn't gone unnoticed.

Stegall, 55, won four awards in the 2008 National Caricature Carvers Competition and Exhibit. He won first place in the roughout category, fourth and fifth place in single human figure under 10 inches and fifth place for a bust, which is a head--and-shoulders carving.

Stegall said roughouts are how many caricature carvers teach their students. An original finished carving is placed ona machine and a stylus is run over its surface. At the same time a wood saw duplicates the shape of the carving on a blank, which is a block of wood. It is up to the artist to add the finishing touches and details, such as the face, hair and clothing.

He still has the first caricature he ever carved - a Civil War solider, which he carved out of cedar with a pocket knife in 1964.

"Cedar is a difficult wood to carve because it's knotty and has a twisted grain. Most of the figures carvers make today are made out of bass wood, which is a closegrain hardwood. It's a relative of the lin-den tree, which is found mostly up north," Stegall said.

He first became aware of the bass-wood blanks and roughouts in the '70s.

Stegall usually starts by drawing the profile of the caricature on a block of wood; then he uses a band saw to cut it out. He starts to work with his wood-carving tools, working from the head down.

"I change up their faces and their clothing. The eyes are the key. I work hard on the eyes and face, and sometimes I add a little movement, like this one here, his head is tilted to the side," Stegall said.

When the carving is done, Stegall hand-paints his caricatures with water-based acrylics.

"I like using water-based acrylics because they are light colors that permit the wood grain to come through. I want it to be obviously a woodcarving and not a mass-produced resin or plaster character," Stegall said.

He estimates spending about 10 hours on each figure under 10 inches, although he has spent more time on larger works, like the cigar-store Indian he made for his mother-in-law.

His carvings have also been in the national spotlight.

Arkansas Craft Guild members were asked to submit angel arts and crafts to decorate the White House Christmas tree during the Clinton administration, so Stegall submitted a carved angel. Hanging in the Stegalls' living room is a frame with a photograph of the Christmas tree, letters of thanks from Hillary and Bill Clinton, the envelope the letter came in and Stegall's sketches of the angels.

Stegall also has carved cowboy figurines for sale in the Smithsonian Institution's gift shop.

Stegall has worked full time for the U.S. Post Office in Little Rock for 22 years. Sometimes when he's done delivering mail in west Little Rock, he will get an idea for a caricature and sketchit quickly on a scrap of paper and pocket it to work on at his woodcarver's bench.

Since woodcarving is a timeconsuming hobby, Stegall doesn't go to a lot of arts and crafts shows, but when he does, he can get about $150 per caricature.

"You can tell when someone wants one because they'll pick it up, look it all over and then pull it to their chest while they look at the other ones. Usually people want a caricature because it looks like someone they know," Stegall said.

As a 10-year old growing up in Little Rock, Stegall would carve pistols and knives out of thin pieces of wood and whittle down the sharp corners with his pocket knife.

"My uncle Billy Milton first got me interested in whittling and carving," Stegall said.

He said it was years before he realized there were specialized wood-carving tools.

"I went to Dogpatch theme park and saw the woodcarver's workshop, and that's when the spark for wood-carving tools hit me. I carved for 10 years with dull tools before realizing if I'm using these tools, I better learnhow to sharpen them and that, as they say, has made all the difference," Stegall said.

Roger has helped keep the craft alive by teaching classes atthe Arkansas Arts Center and for the Central Arkansas Carving Club. This fall he is sharing the craft with wood-carving students at a class in Jacksonville.

"I've been teaching off and on for about 10 years. I love to see the progress students make. I think the more a wood-carving student enjoys doing the detail work, the more they'll enjoy the entire process from making a roughout to painting," Stegall said.

Besides the hillbillies, soldiers and cowboys he carves, Stegall also makes animals, Santas and angels, mostly as gifts for friends and family members.

Kathy Stegall said she is "extremely" proud of her husband of 35 years.

"My favorites have always been the things he does for Christmas and Christmas presents for family, because now we can go back and see things through the yearsand see the progression of how he has improved day in and day out," Kathy Stegall said.

In the '90s Stegall wanted to see how his caricatures stack up against the competition, so he started entering contests. His first blue ribbon is from the 1995 Arkansas State Fair. He had been entering carvings in the National Caricature Carvers Competition and Exhibit about three years ago.

"The hardest part of carving caricatures, beside the eyes, is making sure the head is proportionate to the body," Stegall said.

Next year Stegall plans to pass the craft on to his grandson, Hunter Stegall, 9. Hunter already exercises his creativity by making characters out of clay, Stegall said, and creates stop-action films using a video camera and his clay figures.

Stegall's workbench is in a corner of his garage for now, but he dreams of building a workshop and display area in his backyard to help him preserve the art of woodcarving.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 137, 146 on 10/12/2008

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