By Gina Malone
Mike Shults never set out to be an artist, although the urge was in him from an early age. “I first became interested in creating art as soon as I could hold a pencil or crayon,” he says. However, it is only in the last decade that he has listened to all those who encouraged him—teachers, family and friends—to pursue art. Carving into wood the world he sees around him is what captured his fancy.
“I always wanted to be a farmer or a veterinarian when I was a kid, to be around animals,” he says, “and now I enjoy drawing and carving animals, especially farm animals. I was really born into loving nature because it is all I have ever known.” He grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, following in the footsteps of his father in farming with local farmers until the age of 15 and working for the last 50 years at a local hardware store in Sevierville, the same one where his father worked for more than 65 years. Shults was the oldest of four children and his mother worked as a housewife and a cook at a local elementary school. “I was raised in the country and had a very happy childhood,” Shults says. “I couldn’t ask for a finer childhood or parents. Being born and raised in the mountains, I grew to love outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and hunting.”
He often begins his creation process in his mind. “It sometimes takes a long time to get from my mind to the paper and then to the wood,” he says. He enjoys learning about history and genealogy and is inspired by life in the mountains, survival and old mountain ways. One beautifully detailed piece depicts a mule team straining to pull a stump from the earth; another a bristly furred mother bear followed by cubs; and still another a red-suited Santa straining to pull a roped and reluctant reindeer. Far from evoking the wood they were carved from, Shults’ pieces have a sense of motion about them. Yet, for all the careful detail in his carvings, Shults says he often has to just “decide” to call a piece finished, “because, sometimes, more is too much.”
Like any artist, a gamut of emotions hits him with the onset of every piece: excitement and anticipation, fear and dread. “I can’t help but to carve when I get in the mood to,” he says.
“If it is on my mind, I am going to do it.” Much of the wood he uses to create his intricate pieces is reclaimed or picked up from construction sites. “I enjoy using ‘junk’ wood,” he says, “and turning it into art or something useful.”
He has won many ribbons for his carvings through the years. One carving of which he is especially proud is of a little mule and a cane mill. “It won awards everywhere it went,” he says, “and was on display in Washington, DC, for a year.”
Shults remains modest, however, about his work. “I wouldn’t consider my art a career,” he says. “I would consider it a hobby, something I enjoy. I find it relaxing and fulfilling. I am so humbled by this God-given gift of creating art.”
Find Mike Shults’ woodcarvings at Southern Highland Craft Guild’s galleries at Biltmore Village, 26 Lodge Street, and the Folk Art Center, 382 Blue Ridge Parkway; and at The Wood Whittlers and Whaley Handcrafts, both in Gatlinburg, TN. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 865.414.9688.