Q&A: Jim Arnold brings wisdom and wood carving to the Peoria Art Guild
For wood carving artist Jim Arnold, a desire to learn has driven him throughout his life; now, as an instructor at the Peoria Art Guild, he’s hoping to foster that love of learning in students of all ages.
Arnold is best known for his hand-carved chess sets, a venture that began out of boredom and grew into a main artistic practice. In his youth, Arnold’s father told him to “stay low and move fast,” a creed he has taken to heart. Once a sailor, then a scuba diver, and now an artist, Arnold has seen his fair share of the country, from Hawaii to Key West. Now, Arnold is taking his wisdom and woodcarving talents to the classrooms at the Peoria Art Guild, and an upcoming chainsaw carving class will be the only one of its kind in the country. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Jim Arnold: I've had four different careers. I get bored easily and I like to learn stuff. I was sailing, and my boat had a wooden tiller on it, and for no other reason, I just had knives and stuff, I carved a mermaid on the end of the tiller. And people saw that and within a week I had a line of people outside my dock slip and they were like, ‘Can you carve a skull on this? Can you put a scene on my companionway doors?’ and I found myself starting to work on boats, and that developed into doing total remodeling of the inside of old boats. The carving kicked in and it kind of stayed. I went from remodeling boat interiors into building houses.
I started making chess sets when I was taking care of my mom when she was ill in Urbana several years ago. I got bored, so I made a chess set out of the tools in my dad's garage. He had passed several years earlier, but it was a set that reminded me of the one that he taught myself and my brothers how to play on. I've sold chess sets on every continent except Antarctica.
Mike Rundle: What is it about wood specifically that keeps you engaged with it and keeps you coming back to it as an artist?
Jim Arnold: Wood’s alive. Wood has a history, there’s stories about wood, you know. Religion, wood plays a big part in it. It's alive. In storms it blows down. If you go to the wood dump, and I haven't been, I'm not sure how they have it set up here in Pekin, but I'll get a hold of a couple arborists and find out where they take all the trees that get blown down, and I'll go cut those up and I'll use those for the wood that I use for all my statues and stuff like that.
Mike Rundle: In terms of art education, why do you feel it’s important for folks to come in and learn how to do these things with their hands and learn a new medium?
Jim Arnold: People are reluctant to try new things, especially as you get older. A lot of times in my classes, it’ll be filled with people that are in their upper 70s, 80s, sometimes 90-year-old people will take the class. I'll hear from them there's nothing else to do, you know, that's interesting, but they'll get into it. It's amazing to watch people that are afraid of it. They're nervous when they first walk in, they’re worried they're gonna cut their fingers off and there's gonna be blood everywhere, you know, stuff like that. It's fun to watch somebody that's nervous come in and, just in a couple classes, they've got it. They’ve got the artist attitude, they're looking at their stuff and making some changes. Just the growth, how much they learn on an individual level.
I've had probably five students over the last 20 years that, in their first project that we're doing there, I could tell that I will never be as good as they will ever be—and that's their first project that they're working on. That's, like, golden to see that in people.
I pick out projects that highlight the steps of the process so that when we're done with the class, they can go home and pick out any project they want and they can do it and complete the project. They just come in and, by the time they take those first three classes, you'd swear they've been carving for 20 years already. It's kind of cool to see people just, you know—they really take it to heart.
Mike Rundle: From your personal work to teaching classes, what would you say is your driving force behind all that?
Jim Arnold: Just to stay engaged. Not to get left behind, not to get dated, you know, and be old. I hate all that Boomer talk, so I try to stay current. I try to keep up with the music. I just want to be relevant. I don't want to be you know, like, start acting like [I’m] turning into my father and my grandfather. Keep the nose to the grindstone. I enjoy learning. I want to learn. If I quit learning, and I quit doing stuff, it'll just get really boring and be really sad for me, so I gotta stay engaged with something.
Mike Rundle: After all these years, what keeps you excited about making new work?
Jim Arnold: I'm getting older. I'm forgetting what I'm saying sometimes already. It keeps your mind sharp learning the stuff. It's something that I've just never quit. I was an okay student, I wasn't great, but I always enjoyed learning, so I've always kept on learning new stuff. I don't want to stop, I fear I'm gonna die if I stop, so I just keep going. I don't think about age or anything, I just keep going. I know that, at some point, it's gonna come to an end, but not today and not tomorrow, so I just keep going until that point.