Dennis Bixby – County Commissioner and Caricature CarverComments (0)
Carver Dennis Bixby says he has sawdust in his veins. The son of a fifth-generation carpenter, Bixby was lulled to sleep by the sound of hammers and saws from an early age. “My mom used to tell me that she would take me out to a job site and put me in a playpen while she would fix lunch for my dad and my uncle. I would sleep soundly until lunch was ready and she called all of them in. Once the hammering and the banging had stopped, I would wake up and begin to cry. I would remain fussy until the men went back to work. They nicknamed me The Foreman,” Bixby laughed.
“I have sawdust in my veins!”
- Dennis Bixby, woodcarver
As he grew up, Bixby tried working construction in the family business, but his fear of heights prompted him to design homes instead of building them. A few years later after watching woodcarvers on a family trip to Branson, Missouri, with his wife Denise and young daughter Amanda, Bixby was compelled to buy a carving knife, a block of wood and a book by renowned caricature carver Harold Enlow with their last $20. “My wife said it would sit in the corner gathering dust,” the good-natured Bixby chuckled, “so I sort of started carving just to prove her wrong.”
The nickname Bixby goes by these days is Possum, a name he said generated from his days selling his woodcarvings at a unique cooperative arts store in Branson. He was asked to entertain the “QTip” crowd (“white haired people with white tennis shoes and disposable income”) while the musicians took a break so the shoppers would stick around. He said, “They needed somebody who could do something entertaining for 10 minutes. My buddy said ‘Dennis can carve a sweet potato.’” Bixby recalled, “I became known as Possum because they needed a ‘character’ and because I stay pretty serious and lay out the punch line at the end.”
Bixby’s Possum Hollow Studio in Tonganoxie, Kansas, is where he creates realistic and caricature human figure carvings, hand carves plaques and signs, restores carvings and repairs wooden furniture. In keeping with the theme, Bixby calls his truck the Possum Hauler.
Commissioner Bixby is yet another nickname for this woodcarver. Bixby is currently serving his third year asLeavenworth County (Kansas) commissioner, but he actually got into politics as a result of a family tragedy. On Valentine’s Day 2007, his daughter Amanda was killed at the age of 19 in an automobile collision when another driver ran a stop sign.
Frustrated with the vehicular homicide laws, Bixby made more than 60 trips to Topeka to lobby for stricter guidelines when accidents like the one that claimed his daughter’s life occur. “With the help of a lot of good people,” Bixby said, “Amanda’s Law HB-2617 was passed in 2008 Kansas Legislature, which mandates drug testing after serious and fatal auto accidents in the state of Kansas.” After that, Bixby was encouraged to continue using his powers of persuasion and political connections, and won his seat as commissioner in 2012.
He teaches woodcarving classes throughout the Midwest, including his 11th year at the Lenexa, Kansas, Woodcraft store. His popular Sweet Potato Santa Carving classes and Cowboy Caricature Carving classes fill up quickly.
Sweet potatoes are a little easier for beginners to carve than wood, which requires some strength and control for prolonged carving sessions. As the carved sweet potato dries, it shrinks and becomes as hard as wood, and can be finished and painted similarly to wood. In his Cowboy Caricature class, Bixby teaches basic anatomy design, selecting the appropriate chisels, knife use skills and tool sharpening. Bixby will be teaching both classes at theSeattle, Washington, Woodcraft store on October 5 and 6.
Watch the video below to see Dennis carve a Scott Phillips-inspired sweet potato at the 2014 Woodcraft National Sales Conference and Vendor Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio! He explains the carving process, the tools he uses and how to finish the dried sweet potato.
For the last several years, Bixby has found himself dealing with diminishing eyesight due to diabetes. He told Lenexa Woodcraft store manager Charlie Wilson he wouldn’t be able to teach classes for him much longer. Wilson recommended Bixby try a magnification device fromDonegan Optical. “All of a sudden, I could carve again,” Bixby marveled.
Donegan Optical Company has been manufacturing precision visual aids for industry, home, office and crafts for more than 60 years. Doctors, dentists, jewelry makers, quality control inspectors, model train enthusiasts, and crafters use these devices for precise magnification. In-home health professionals even use them when giving IVs. Donegan products are 100% USA fabricated in their Lenexa, Kansas, facility where they are fully equipped for precision glass grinding and polishing, injection and compression plastic molding, and design and tool development.
Bixby uses the Donegan OptiVISOR with the optional light accessory for the up-close work on his carvings. (Lenses sold separately.) OptiVISOR is a precision binocular headband magnifier which permits unrestricted user efficiency while reducing eye strain—leaves both hands free and allows three dimensional vision. “There are no distortions because of the way they grind the glass to optical standards,” said Bixby. “You can wear them over top of your glasses, or in place of glasses, whichever works best for you.” Donegan grinds and polishes their ophthalmologist glass lenses for clarity, and their lenses are matched and centered so users won’t get headaches from use like some magnifiers.
As a result of their connection, Bixby has been a guest in the Donegan Optical vendor booth at the Woodcraft National Sales Conference and Vendor Show the past two years. Last year in Columbus, Ohio, he was carving a fabulous Wizard of Oz piece, and this year he brought it back completed. Bixby does all of the finishing and painting of his projects.
Since the 2015 Show was held in Louisville, Kentucky, Bixby brought a new carving to share – his version of a Louisville Slugger. Bixby said his baseball player is a “free agent” so he won’t be affiliated with one particular team, but he called him “KC at the Bat” in reference to his hometown of Kansas City.
He called this caricature ball player a “thick version of a Fat Head” and said it was inspired by the book Carving Caricature Busts by renowned caricature carver Pete LeClair and the works of recognized and respected carver Tom Wolfe. Bixby said he likes LeClair’s carved noses and smiles on caricature work. He is inspired by Wolfe’s work to continue developing his carving skills.
Using a stock photo of a baseball player, Bixby found inspiration for the player’s stance and the folds and wrinkles in his uniform.
Bixby’s carving tools are a “hodgepodge collected over the years,” he said, but he is a big fan of Flexcut’s deluxe palm tools and carving knife set. “They are American made, fit nicely in the hand and they have a nice box to protect the tools.” He is also an avid pfeil Tools user, specifically gouges because he finds them easier to sharpen than V-tools and they allow more flexibility when working on fine details.
His Work Sharp keeps his tools in tip-top shape, and he even uses an Arbortech for some power carving applications. Bixby uses Armor Tool clamps to assist when holding workpieces in place during carving sessions.
As a carver, Bixby’s vision is vital to his craft and undoubtedly the most important tool he has. But for the past five years, he has struggled to save his eyesight due to damage from diabetes. After cataract surgery, retinal bleeding, laser treatments and steroid shots in both eyes every few months, Bixby is now part of a pharmaceutical drug study, which has proved to be promising. “I have been on the new drug for about six weeks now and the drug is working. God is good!” He explained, “The damage to my vision has dissipated. I am seeing 20/20, and the health of my eyes is getting better.”
Whether you call him The Foreman, Possum or Commissioner, Dennis Bixby’s talent is hard to deny. I hope Bixby will join Woodcraft again at our next vendor trade show so we can see the completed KC at the Bat!
To find a carving class near you, check your local store class pages by first locating the nearest Woodcraft locationhere. To learn more about Bixby’s woodcarving journey, go towww.dennisbixby.com, or “like” his Possum Hollow Studio page on Facebook.
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