Miles Burkholder Carpenter

Miles B. Carpenter (1889–1985)

Miles B. Carpenter was a prominent twentieth-century folk artist. In 1912 Carpenter purchased a factory in the Sussex County town of Waverly, which he turned into a lumber mill. He later added a sawmill and ice business to his enterprise. Carpenter began woodcarving in 1941 but had little time to spend on his work until he closed his lumber mill in the 1950s. The artist began sculpting animals and then people, utilizing both whittling and assemblage. By the 1970s Carpenter's work drew the attention of collectors, and he began exhibiting his works in one-man shows. His autobiography Cutting the Mustard was published in 1982. MORE...

 

Miles Burkholder Carpenter was born on May 12, 1889, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and was the son of Wayne M. Carpenter, a farmer, and Elizabeth R. Burkholder Carpenter. He attended a one-room school and with his ten siblings worked on the Mennonite family's farm. In the spring of 1902 the family moved to Virginia, where his father acquired a 340-acre farm near Waverly, in Sussex County, and also constructed a sawmill. On May 19, 1915, Carpenter married Mary Elizabeth Stahl, of Carbon County, Pennsylvania. They had one son.

With financial assistance from his father Carpenter purchased a vacant factory in Waverly about 1912 and soon began operating a lumber mill that produced finished wood for local builders. He added his own sawmill to his enterprise and also began making and selling ice. For several years beginning about 1915 Carpenter joined a partner in operating an open-air theater showing silent movies. Occasionally tinkering with wood scraps, he made a violin and incised trinket boxes. During a slow period in his successful lumber business in 1941 he began whittling to pass the time. His first carving, a primitive polar bear, delighted his wife, who encouraged him to create more animals. The building boom following World War II (1939–1945) left Carpenter little opportunity for further woodcarving until several accidents suffered while operating machinery caused him to close his lumber mill in the mid-1950s.

Carpenter's affinity for woodcarving probably derived from the rich Pennsylvania German folk art culture, a functional and ornamental tradition that inspired other members of his family to build furniture and clocks. His subjects included animals, especially birds, dogs, monkeys, pigs, and snakes, and human figures often expressing the artist's quirky reflections on biblical subjects or on such current events as the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, or the 1973 protest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He also carved celebrity portraits of such notables as Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley, usually with an eye to their commercial value. His favored tools included chisels, files, hatchets, pocketknives, and saws.

Carpenter created sculptures in a naïve style using both whittling and assemblage. After sanding, polishing, and preparing each piece, he painted it, usually with enamel house paint. He dressed many of his human figures in handmade clothes. Some works included moving parts or sound effects, such as one multipiece sculpture of a female pig feeding a litter of piglets in a pen that he equipped with a noisemaker that squealed when squeezed. His early sculptures were representational, often small and carefully detailed. Later in his career driftwood, twisting tree limbs and roots, and other found pieces of wood inspired him to create larger, more interpretational works such as the nightmarish Root Monster and Sea Monster Catching a Fish. Of these fantastical, often deeply symbolic pieces Carpenter observed, "I see the hidden objects there and bring them almost to life." He produced the majority of his carvings after his wife's death on November 5, 1966.

Carpenter displayed his colorful sculptures at the roadside stand where he sold ice, drinks, and produce. To attract customers he carved a 200-pound watermelon, a piece eventually acquired by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. By the 1970s his work had drawn the attention of collectors, including Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. One of the preeminent folk art enthusiasts of the twentieth century and a founder of what became the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Hemphill helped win critical acclaim for Carpenter's work. The sculptor received one-man shows at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1974 and 1985 and at the Yorktown Visitor Center in 1980. The Hand Workshop Art Center, in Richmond, and Radford University mounted centennial retrospectives in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Carpenter's imaginative carvings have been included in numerous group exhibitions across the country and featured in publications on American folk art. Few other twentieth-century Virginia folk artists elicited such national enthusiasm. In 1981 the president invited Carpenter to the White House, and the next year the sculptor received a Visual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982 he published his autobiography, Cutting the Mustard.

Carpenter died in a Petersburg hospital on May 7, 1985, and was buried in Waverly Cemetery. The following year the Miles B. Carpenter Museum opened at his Waverly home to display his work and to provide an arts facility for area residents.

Major Work

  • Cutting the Mustard (1982)
  • Time Line

    • May 12, 1889 - Miles B. Carpenter is born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and is the son of Wayne M. Carpenter and Elizabeth R. Burkholder Carpenter.
    • 1902 - Miles B. Carpenter's family moves to Sussex County.
    • 1912 - About this time, Miles B. Carpenter purchases a vacant factory in Waverly with financial assistance from his father. He soon begins operating a lumber mill that produces finished wood for local builders.
    • 1915 - Starting about this year, Miles B. Carpenter joins a partner in operating an open-air theater showing silent movies.
    • May 19, 1915 - Miles B. Carpenter and Mary E. Stahl marry. They will have one son.
    • 1941 - Miles B. Carpenter starts whittling to pass the time at his sawmill.
    • Mid-1950s - Several accidents suffered while operating machinery causes Miles B. Carpenter to close his lumber mill about this time.
    • November 5, 1966 - Miles B. Carpenter's wife, Mary E. Stahl Carpenter, dies. Following her death, Carpenter produces the majority of his carvings.
    • 1974 - Miles B. Carpenter receives a one-man show at Virginia Commonwealth University.
    • 1980 - Miles B. Carpenter receives a one-man show at the Yorktown Visitor Center.
    • 1981 - The president invites Miles B. Carpenter to the White House.
    • 1982 - Miles B. Carpenter receives a Visual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the same year, Carpenter publishes his autobiography, Cutting the Mustard.
    • 1985 - Miles B. Carpenter receives another one-man show at Virginia Commonwealth University.
    • May 7, 1985 - Miles B. Carpenter dies in a Petersburg hospital and is buried in Waverly Cemetery.
    • 1986 - The Miles B. Carpenter Museum opens at Carpenter's Waverly home.
    • 1989–1990 - The Hand Workshop Art Center, in Richmond, and Radford University mount centennial retrospectives for Miles B. Carpenter.

    References

    Further Reading
    Gregson, Chris. "Miles Carpenter: The Man and His Art." The Art Messenger 2 (Spring 1989): 1, 3.
    Ott, Cindy. "Visions in Wood: Four Twentieth-Century Wood Sculptors." Archives of American Art Journal 43 (2003): 18–28.
    Ray, Tom H. "Carpenter, Miles Burkholder." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 25–26. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
    Cite This Entry
    • APA Citation:

      Ray, T. H., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Miles B. Carpenter (1889–1985). (2015, November 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Carpenter_Miles_Burkholder_1889-1985.

    • MLA Citation:

      Ray, Tom H. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Miles B. Carpenter (1889–1985)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

    First published: April 16, 2013 | Last modified: November 2, 2015


    Contributed by Tom H. Ray and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography