Cane and able: Summerville woman finds her niche

  • Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nancy Sampson shows one of the cutters she uses to carve figures on her walking sticks. LESLIE CANTU


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Where other people see piles of brush waiting to be picked up by city trucks, or overgrown limbs they should chainsaw away, Nancy Sampson sees potential art.
Over the years, people in her neighborhood near the Gum Street post office have gotten used to seeing her drag home the woody refuse before the town can get to it, she says.
Her ears prick up at the sound of chainsaws.
She's got her eye on particularly interesting-looking tree boughs.
She might ask that you trim your tree just so, so she can get perfectly cut raw material.
Sampson has done many things in her life – she's worked with horses at racetracks, a job her body won't let her do anymore; she worked at an animal shelter; she was “room mother” at her child's school; she worked as a child at her grandfather's restaurant supply store in Miami, cleaning the brass with Tabasco sauce; she's been a caretaker for the elderly – but she has always been an artist.
When she was younger she wanted to go to college for art, but her father, a pilot, died in a plane crash when she was barely out of her teens.
Her siblings had children or were busy with work, so she ended up taking care of their mother.
She came to South Carolina from Florida with her ex. She likes Summerville. It's a great little town, and she likes that she can walk just about everywhere she needs to go.
If you see her walking, you might see her using an intricately carved walking stick – her own creation.
She makes canes, walking sticks and walking staffs using the natural qualities of different types of wood.
It might take months of considering a bare limb, but eventually she'll see the form within – maybe a mermaid, maybe a bear, maybe a wizard.
Once she understands what the wood should be, Sampson gets to work revealing the figures to the rest of the world.
With meticulous carving over hundreds of hours she creates intricate scenes of whimsical detail.
Then she gives them away.
She donated a walking stick depicting crabs caught in a net to Dumb Ass Cancer, a group raising money to cover cancer treatments for Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch cameraman Matt Fahey.
She's now reworking a stick she made in 2009. The grip is the head of a lab, and she's adding paw prints up the stick itself. Once finished, she'll send it to Sgt. Chuck Shuck, the owner and partner of Gabe, a yellow lab who was the American Humane Association's 2012 Hero Dog and who died this month.
In this struggling economy, she can't sell the sticks for enough to compensate for her time, so she'd rather give them as gifts.
She's thought about selling online – for example, opening a shop on Etsy, a site that caters to handmade crafts – but she's not particularly Internet savvy.
Her energy, instead, is spent on her art.
When she decides on a design, she draws it first on paper, then transfers it to the stick. She works with the contours of the wood, so a bump might become a sea horse's belly and a knot might become a raccoon hiding in a hollow.
She carves with ever-smaller cutters in her Dremel, then often goes back with hand tools to finish the job.
Instead of buying wood putty at the store, she makes her own using the sawdust from the stick she's carving.
She might need the putty to connect two parts, or she might need it to fill in a mistake. Working in relief on a slender cylinder – slips do happen.
Sometimes she paints the designs; sometimes she simply goes over the wood with tung oil.
She likes tung oil because, depending how many coats are given, it can impart a deep luster or a satin finish.
If the stick gets dinged up over time, she simply rubs it with fine steel wool and re-applies the tung oil.
Walking sticks aren't Sampson's only outlet. She carves little turtles for necklaces. She's sewn and she paints. The walking sticks are distinctively hers, however.
“They're a useable piece of artwork,” she said.

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