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santa in cypress


Mississippi wood carver creates unique festive treasures

By Denise Pugh

December may be prime time for Christmas and Santa, but for Tammy Jackson of New Houlka, Mississippi, they’re on her mind year-round. Tammy is a skilled woodcarver; best known locally for the cypress Santas she hand-carves and paints.

Tammy came to the trade by accident when nearly 20 years ago, she attended a woodcarver’s exhibition and demonstration. After spending some time observing the woodcarvers, she thought to herself, “I can do that.”

Tammy bought a carving knife and began her first project: carving a head out of a cypress knee, a distinct structure that forms above the roots on a cypress tree. She painted the carving with oils, stained the carving to age it, and thus her journey into the art form began.

“Carving comes natural to me,” Tammy says. “I guess you could say this was my calling.”

Tammy uses cypress knees as her medium because they’re easy to come by in Calhoun County and they’re relatively easy to carve. Tammy takes cuttings from her property and serves her surrounding area’s farmers by removing the knees from their land.

As for her subject, “I chose Santas because they make the faces of customers light up, and they create joy and smiles,” she says. Tammy works on the Santas throughout the year, not just before the holidays.

Many of Tammy’s creations are completed in a few days, but some take up to a month. “I sometimes just set them aside because a piece of the wood has come off, or I lose the focus,” she says. “When I come back to the piece, I can finish it with satisfaction knowing it turned into what it was supposed to be.”

After picking a cypress knee, Tammy removes the two layers of bark. She then draws an outline of the design onto the wood and begins to carve. Once the carving is completed, she paints it with acrylics, ages it with stain, and seals it with lacquer.

After completing more than 300 Santa carvings, Tammy has a regular following of customers. She sells her creations at a local boutique and at the Skuna River Art & Music Festival every October.

Along with Santas, Tammy has carved people, snowmen, penguins, polar bears, and other figures. In addition to carving skills that have earned her attention from a variety of collectors, Tammy has a unique talent for seeing the possibility for art in nature.

“I look at a piece of wood, and I just know what it is going to be,” she says.

To learn more about Tammy Jackson and her cypress Santas, visit her Facebook page.

Denise Pugh is a writer and master gardener from Mississippi.