Frank James doesn’t consider his collection of intricate, completely handmade and hand-carved miniature buildings the sum total of his art. For that, you’d have to factor into the equation James’ focus and determination, his creativity in figuring out how to use everyday materials in his works and even in his philosophy of life. To James, 48, a self-taught woodcarver and artist, there’s simply no way to divorce such intangibles from the wood, stone and found objects used in his work.
Examples of James’ more tangible creations- detailed scale models of a church, a home and an ancient tabernacle—can be seen on exhibit through November 23 at the West Las Vegas Arts Center, 947 W. Lake Mead Blvd.
James says he started carving as a child, while growing up in his native West Indies. One of his earliest works, carved when he was 12, was a chess set with Egyptian figures that now rests in a room of his North Las Vegas home. “He asked me to build this chess set he saw in a book”, James says. “He said, “Can you hand-carve those?” I was always hand-carving something, so I started hand-carving it for him, and he taught me how to play chess. HE said the day I beat him I could have it back. He thought I’d never beat him.”
“Five years later, I checkmated him on day and he said, “It’s yours,’ ”James says, laughing.
James came to the United States 18 years ago to live with his brother in New York City. He worked as a carpenter, woodworker and builder for several years, and moved west12 years ago.
James says he learned – and he adds, continues to learn — his craft by watching, planning and then just trying. “I have a fourth grade education,” he says. Forty-something years ago there wasn’t much education in the village where I grew up.”
But, James continues, “As I grew up, I saw everything. I saw a guy come to fix the refrigerator and I asked him a bunch of questions. I went out ad got an old refrigerator and fixed it. I learned a lot of trades because I’m inquisitive. I fixed TVs and radios, whatever (was) going on.”
That curiosity and determination serves James well as an artist, because his works are made largely from common
materials used in uncommon ways. Champagne bottles corks, drinking straws and plastic toothbrush cases are worked in his pieces in a way that belies no trace of their former use.
Take James’ “Bed of Roses,” a hand-carved bed entering via a three step stairway ad having a headboard that incorporates a TV, bar and an eight-track player. Many of the fixtures on the bed were something else first – a light, for example, that used to be a glass doorknob.
James estimates the bed, which took him 22 months and 5,300 hours of work. “It’s all hand-carved, and I don’t have a lot of tools. My tools are a power saw, hacksaw blade and my knife,” he says. Even the spindles were fashioned on a lathe James created out of two drills.
The scale model church building, which James calls “The Universal Temple of Truth,” was built over a period of about four years. James says he made everything by hand, from the stained glass windows formed out of melted plastic to the welding rods and jewelry rings that make up a wrought iron fence.
Even the bricks on the walkway surrounding the church were made individually, out of wood filler mixed with red paint ad positioned one-by-one, he says. Similarly, the shingles on the roof each were cut from a block of slate then individually glued in place.
James’ ultimate use of found materials may be the fish on the banquet table in the church’s basement. The fish used to live in James’ own aquarium. To prevent it as an artistic entrée, James gutted it, packed it with salt, soaked it in vinegar, sewed it back up, varnished it and then served it up.
“That was last summer, “he adds laughing. “I’m surprised the fish hasn’t rotted yet.”
The church,, like James’ other works, wasn’t built from written plans. Nor does he plan out what materials he’ll need.
Another work which James calls “The House of Democracy,” is a representation of a three story home. Begun in 1985, the work took him 22 months to complete. In the back yard of the house is a swimming pool, made out of a trash container that can be filled with water and a spa, thanks to dry ice and an
|aquarium air filter, bubbles and steams. James says every piece of furniture inside the house was made from scratch.
“That’s where the time goes,” he says. “It takes time because (the components are) so small. And you go out and put something together and you start all over again.”
A third work is a model of the tabernacle Moses erected in the Sinai Desert more than 3,700 years ago. Burning torches – fed by a propane tank secured under the table—surround a tent atop a desert landscape made from sand mixed with glue and sprayed in numerous layers onto a piece of plywood . This work even includes a painted nighttime sky designed, James says, with the help of a computer projection of stars’ positions almost four millennia ago.
James hasn’t sold a piece, but would be happy to entertain offers. Meanwhile, he’s trying to decide on his next project.
“I like Treasure Island and the Mirage,” he says. “Now, I know they have models of those, most likely, but they have architects models. I can build the same thing with the volcano exploding and the ship sinking. Land, lawns and waterfalls, I can do all of it, so it becomes realistic rather than a plastic model.”
James likes it that people appreciate his art. What he’d like is for people --- especially kids – to realize what his art represents. “Everyone says, ‘I could not do that. I don’t have the patience.’” James says. “I say, ‘You haven’t tried. You haven’t made a real effort.”
Achieving anything requires the ability to set goals, the determination to meet those goals, the determination to meet those goals, and the creativity to deal with obstacles that crop up along the way, James says.
“You have to stick in there. There’s always a way,” he says. In fact I don’t believe there are problems. I believe a situation arises and if you think will enough, with enough patience, you will find a way.
“What I want to tell people us: They can. They just have to get a positive attitude and always look at the glass as if its half-full. I’ve never seen an empty glass yet.”