If the lights are on in the workshop behind Jemes Davis’ house, chances are he is performing a resurrection of sorts. Not in the celestial manner, but a resurrection nonetheless. Davis is an arborist. He’s paid not only to prune trees, but also to remove them. Though one might think extracting a tree brings an end to its life, with Davis this is not the case. For him, the removal provides the opportunity for rebirth.
Six years as an arborist has provided him the opportunity to hone his artistic talents with wood. For Davis, it begins with sculpting living, growing trees. “Trees are beautiful and fascinating,” he says. “If you follow the rules of pruning, it’s a real art form. If done correctly, pruning is like organic sculpture.” Though pruning allows Davis to enhance a tree’s beauty, he doesn’t do it as often as he’d like. “I enjoy trimming, but since my specialty is removal, that’s usually what I’m sent to do.” He understands it’s a necessary process: removing what might be considered a nuisance. But what some might see as an annoyance, Davis sees as a treasure. When he removes a tree, he uses the opportunity to explore its history and the story it tells. “You see how it’s grown, and how it’s overcome things in its life. All of that is recorded in its grain.”
Once a tree is cut, Davis’ creative juices begin to boil. Seeing wood the way a painter might see a canvas and oils, he looks within its fabric to envision the creation. “I’ll look at a shape in a piece of wood and I see something within it.” And the rebirth begins.
Davis’ artistic endeavors didn’t begin with woodwork. Prior to this, he worked as a chef for nearly eight years. Though rewarding to a degree, he realized he wanted to take his talents to the outdoors – preferably to a situation that would take him to new and different locations. Davis’ initiation with wood began in Tampa when a friend came to remove one of his trees. “I watched and said, ‘let me give it a try.’” There his informal training began.
He has always looked for a vehicle to express his creativity. Though he loves to paint, woodwork has provided both a satisfying therapy and a medium to express himself in ways few people are able. Becoming an arborist further opened that potential. “I grew up with a painting and drafting background,” he says. “I had not done much wood-carving because it requires so much more in the way of tools and the space to do it.”
His range of creations covers a broad spectrum. He makes furniture. He turns and carves bowls. He constructs ecclesiastical figures such as Jesus and Mary. He has crafted countless masks (mostly theatrical) and many of these hang from the walls of his home. He is currently working on a piece that contains a life-size marionette whose body is contorted within a large table; ligustrum branches serve as the table legs. Davis displays and sells his work at the House of Frames where he has exhibited for five years – with about ten pieces on view at any given time.
Davis uses virtually any kind of wood for his creations; hardwoods, cedar, yellow and white pine. He has worked with camphor, which likely served the dual purpose of producing a new creation and cleared his sinuses in the process. Sticks and limbs are sometimes ingredients in his designs. As far as trees, pine is his favorite. “The yellow pine should be the official tree of the state,” Davis says. “I come from Oklahoma where it’s hard to find a tree over forty feet, and I think it’s sad that so many of these tall, beautiful trees exist and people don’t appreciate them.”
Davis’ dedication spent pursuing his passion of woodwork is done without the thought of making money. “Art is a compulsory thing for me. It’s a form of expression. It’s something I have to do. I don’t feel as if I have to make it a career. I used to feel that way, but I’ve realized it doesn’t. I just have to make the time to do it. For my sanity, and my happiness.”
Though the use of a chainsaw is necessary to get down to the grain, Davis prefers the quiet solitude that sculpting brings to the process. “I like to get the gas-powered tools out of the way as soon as possible,” he states. “Once it gets down to the chisel, which is a contemplative tool, it is a quiet and pleasant work.” It’s at this point where not only creativity emerges, but the therapeutic aspect comes into play – in the quiet, where Davis removes not only the excess wood of his creation but also the worries of the day.
As expansive as his creations are, Davis desires to spend more time carving faces. “It’s so tricky, and difficult to get the details,” he says. “It’s such a delicate relationship. The face is a landscape, filled with hard and soft things, all put together just the right way. Sculpture is an assemblage of that landscape.”
Davis typically spends twenty hours a week working in his shop, located in his back yard. He’d stay there longer if time would allow. “Doing this brings a satisfaction that nothing else provides,” he says.
Though he loves to express himself through his woodwork, it goes hand-in-hand with being an arborist. “It’s a good physical activity, and an honest job.” He hopes to continue climbing trees, but if he physically gets to the point where he can’t do it, it won’t stop him from finding ways to work with wood. “Even if I have to whittle, I will.” His desire to resurrect wouldn’t let him think any other way.