On a street corner in downtown Clayton, a 6-foot, 5-inch fiddling frog eyes all passersby.
The fashionable amphibian, sculpted from wood, wears a long painted coat but no trousers. His feet are large enough to support small children, as evidenced by those who pause to take a selfie with the towering toad.
Corey Lancaster used a chainsaw to sculpt the frog, one of his many wild and whimsical creations, which are popping up throughout Johnston County.
The frog, part of the Town of Clayton’s 2015 sculpture trail, took him several years to complete. On a recent Wednesday at his Boon Hill Gallery in Princeton, he took considerably less time to carve a bear.
In a span of about 15 minutes, Lancaster carved a hunk of pine into rounded ears, a snout and a lifelike scowl.
“Well, he’s an ugly guy,” he said after finishing the piece.
Lancaster carves and sells most of his pieces at the gallery he opened with his grandfather in 2012. However, he also does work at people’s homes.
Lancaster has turned stumps at Beverly Wilson’s Clayton home into owls, bears, birds and rabbits. He’s completed six projects in her front and back yards.
“When I wake up in the morning and look out the window, it fills me with a lot of joy,” Wilson said. “It’s so pretty; it’s beautiful.”
Wilson’s daughter and next-door neighbor, Elaine, knew about Lancaster’s work and proposed the idea of the sculptures to her mother. Now trees that would have been removed have been transformed into creatures she wishes “good night” before going to bed.
“When I look at them, I see the love my daughter has for me and also the beauty of the art,” Wilson said. “This, to me, is art.”
Have chainsaw, will travel
Lancaster, 25, went to North Johnston High School. After graduating, he started washing dishes at restaurants and eventually worked his way up to managerial positions.
His grandfather, Doug Langston, had carved pieces in the past – not to sell but just to see what he could “turn out.” But a few years ago, the largest tree in his front yard died. Langston didn’t want to cut it down, so he thought about how else to use it.
“I cut it off at the 12-foot mark and left a stump about 12 feet out of the ground,” Langston said. He then dug out a business card he’d received from a man from Pennsylvania. It read, “Have chainsaw, will travel.”
Langston knew he probably couldn’t afford to have the man come down, but he called him anyway. It turned out the man’s son lived in the Cleveland community, not far from Langston’s home in Princeton.
“He said, ‘If you want me to come and look at that tree, I will,’” Langston said. “I said, ‘Better than that, why don’t you come down and plan to carve it?’”
And the man did, carving an eagle and two bears out of what remained of the tree. While visiting, the man told Langston about a carving festival held each year in Ridgeway, Pa.
Langston went to the festival in 2008 and took Lancaster the next year.
“I got to experience the atmosphere and see the art take form,” Lancaster said. “The carvers from all around the world carve for a week and auction the pieces off for charity.”
After a couple of more visits to the Pennsylvania festival, Langston made a proposal to his grandson.
“I told him, ‘Listen, I want to do a gallery. Let’s team up and be partners,’” Langston said.
The idea was less about business than personal fulfillment. Langston wanted to be able to look out the window and see his grandson working and smiling.
“Now, he can be creative and do what he wants to do,” Langston said. “You only have one life, and boy you better enjoy it, put it together the best you can and get as much positives you can out of each day.”
‘The free kind’ of wood
Langston’s proposal sounded great to his grandson. Lancaster said he’d always wanted to work for himself; this was his chance.
After getting his first chainsaw in 2013, he started carving mushrooms on the weekends while still working full time. Within a couple of months, he realized that he could make enough money to pay the bills.
“After working 70 hours a week and killing yourself for someone else – if you’re going to work that hard, you might as well work for yourself,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster lives in a house at Boon Hill Gallery, where he sells not only his pieces but those crafted by other carvers. Realistic animal carvings, which are Lancaster’s favorite, make up most of the selection, but the gallery also has whimsical characters, abstract pieces and signs.
Balancing what he likes to carve and what typically sells is a challenge, Lancaster said, noting that most customers gravitate toward the whimsical pieces. But he never minds taking on new designs, which, he said, always start with shapes. A bear head, for example, begins with a triangle.
As for the type of wood he uses, “the free kind” typically works, Lancaster said.
Tree trimmers who’d usually have to pay to dump their wood drop off a steady supply at the gallery. Lancaster can also get the raw material he needs from lumber yards.
He stores the biggest logs on the west end of the gallery, so as not to clutter the front yard, and hauls them over to his carving area on a trailer. To stand the logs upright – some weigh 500-600 pounds – he and his grandfather rigged up a winch system.
Each piece, Lancaster said, can take between an hour to several days to complete.
Lancaster’s “Fiddle Frog” in downtown Clayton was a long-term project. He said he’s glad the town has embraced his and other artists’ work through the downtown sculpture trail. He hopes other towns will do the same.
“I’ll be a few hours away in Greensboro and someone will say, ‘Are you the guy down there on Highway 70?’” Lancaster said. “It’s kind of amazing that by incorporating our art in the yard ... people will call and ask about the carvings or stop and ask about the carvings.”
“I feel like we could be utilized a lot more in our local community as far as putting local art in our towns and cities.”
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104
Boon Hill Gallery
What: A gallery of chainsaw-carved sculptures crafted by Corey Lancaster and other artists along the East Coast.
Where: 1195 W. Edwards St., Princeton.
Who: Lancaster, 919-344-2819 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Doug Langston, 919-936-5601 or email@example.com.