By Rita Thiel
Finding the essence of an artist is a difficult, if not impossible, task, as the heart of many artists lies deep within, exposed only through their art.
Len Skinner embodies that artist mystique. It’s not easy trying to find the heart of this admired albeit reticent Ocracoke carpenter, artist and woodworker.
Self-taught, Skinner is like an old master: Hidden within the twisting, hardened cellulose fibers of trees lies a secret work of art that only the carver knows exists.
His interest in the natural world, especially birds and other animals, heightened his sense of observation, allowing him to perceive shapes and details others may not notice.
“I’ve always loved nature and animals,” he said. “I know what the piece of wood needs to be as soon as I see it.”
Remnants of trees have a story to tell, an essence to share and people to inspire, he said, whether they be young, strong chunks of oak or weathered, disguised cedar logs that have lain undisturbed for years.
Skinner lets the wood speak to him, then his hands tease out that story.
Evident in his scroll work and ornamental carvings is his attention to detail.
As a boy in Michigan, Skinner was fascinated by different woods and working with them, admiring their colors, grains and textures.
“I started as a kid carving walking sticks, then later, little mountain men.”
With no formal woodworking training, relying on his natural talents served Skinner well during his years in Adair County, Kentucky.
As a young man there, he worked rebuilding several pre-Civil War log buildings and making antique furniture reproductions using the tools of those earlier time periods.
“I like the old style of craftsmanship,” Skinner said. “I appreciate how people did things without power tools.”
He also toured Kentucky craft fairs and city festivals, selling his walking sticks and “little mountain men.”
A former Ocracoke resident and now a Martin County resident, Skinner for many years provided Ocracoke with signs and illustrations, unique wood carvings and custom carpentry pieces that are scattered throughout island businesses, homes and Springer’s Point.
Woodworking wasn’t on his mind while first visiting Ocracoke in 1987 but finding a good map of the village was since there wasn’t one available at that time.
“So, 15 years later, Debbie Wells and I collaborated to make the first (and only) complete map of Ocracoke Island,” he said. These hand-drawn maps are still sold in Books to Be Red.
His first friend after moving to Ocracoke, Karen Lovejoy, encouraged his work and has remained “an inspiration in my life,” Skinner said.
During a visit last year to his former island home, he was surrounded by heaps of odd shapes and sizes of wood he collected for possible projects.
He glanced around as though he knows each raw piece of wood by heart.
The reverence with which he handled each piece of wood was tangible; it was like an intrusion to witness the communication happening between the raw material and the artist.
“This looks like a pelican body right here,” he said, indicating a lump of weathered log.
Another piece was a bird with its wings held out.
Each piece of raw wood becomes a work of art, filled with the self-expression and respect for natural beauty held within this artist’s essence.
“Wood carvers put their soul and spirit into their work,” Skinner said.
Those who have walked the Springer’s Point trail most likely have seen the chainsaw-carved raccoon or the owl that used to be at the trail head on Loop Road but which rotted away two years ago, as natural looking in their setting as though they were alive.
Skinner was the caretaker of Springer’s Point for 15 years until leaving that job last year and did much of the trail work for the preserve.
In 2017, Skinner and partner Robin Payne and all their animals moved from Ocracoke to a five-acre farm in Martin County.
Skinner is reconstructing existing buildings and adding new ones to the property “the old-fashioned way” with hand tools (supplemented with some power tools).
“When you use hand tools you can feel what you’re doing,” he said. “You can work the wood with your hands as well as the tools.”
Custom orders are a collaboration with the customer.
“I like to see what kinds of cool wood I have and see what happens,” he explained. “I give it character and style. I’m not on a rigid plan. I make sketches or plans of what I think I’ll do, but I can change things a bit if I feel it needs it.”
His most unusual custom order?
“I had a guy want me to do a five-foot long realistic, detailed rifle,” Skinner said. “I did. It’s hanging on his wall.”
Some small Skinner pieces can be purchased at the Ocracoke Preservation Society museum, 49 Water Plant Rd.
To view his work online, visit Lenskinner.com, Facebook or Etsy: Backwoods Carver.