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Woodcarver touts benefits of hobby

CARROLLWOOD - There's one classroom in Carrollwood where every student is encouraged to have a knife. And the instructor, Jack Simpson, brings an arsenal of blades to every session. For two hours each Friday, Simpson and his students meet to practice the art of woodcarving. A bench knife is required equipment for the class. The 71-year-old Simpson is the granddaddy of whittling at Carrollwood Cultural Center. He launched the class immediately after the center opened in March 2008.
It's a case of necessity being the mother of invention. Soon after moving to Carrollwood and unpacking, Simpson's first goal was to find a carving club like one he belonged to during his years in Sarasota. "I found out real quick there are no carving clubs in Tampa," said Simpson. Exploration of his new community took him down Lowell Road, where he spotted a sign at the cultural center announcing its opening. Simpson said he was told he was the first person through the door. Simpson proposed starting a woodcarving club, and received permission to do so. As with whittling itself, results were slow to develop. "I came in here every Monday evening from 7 to 9, sat here and carved by myself" for two months before publicity, advertising and word of mouth attracted students, and then more students, Simpson said. Through the years, the six-week class has had students ages from 11 to 86. Attendance averaged 10 to 12 people until the economy soured, he said. Job losses, skyrocketing gasoline prices and the need to move elsewhere led some students to drop out, said Simpson, who moved from Carrollwood to Land O'Lakes two years ago. On a recent Friday, students included Michelle and Max Site of Northdale, siblings who agreed carving would be an enjoyable summer-break activity. "I have an interest in it, so my brother and I looked through the catalog," Michelle Site said of the online list of summer classes offered at Carrollwood Cultural Center. "So we decided to do it together," said the Northdale resident who returns this fall to Providence, R.I., for her junior year at Brown University. Max Site, 15, an International Baccalaureate student at Hillsborough High School, was an easy sell. "I just thought it would be really interesting to try out," he said as the pair neared the end of their introductory lesson. Student Richard Nannis joined the class two years ago and now is a member of Tampa Woodcarvers, which Simpson also launched. The nine-member club is an affiliate of 28-year-old Suncoast Woodcarvers of Pinellas County. "It's all about learning how and getting better," said Nannis. "Relatively speaking, it's inexpensive" to begin the hobby. But many, like him, buy an array of knives, chisels and power tools to use in their work. "It's very nice to sit down and carve; it's very relaxing," said Nannis, a Country Place resident who came to Florida from Boston four decades ago and has 12 years of woodworking experience. It's strictly a hobby, Nannis said. "Very few carvers get wealthy; most of their stuff they give away as gifts." Carvings requiring dozens of hours to create are offered at bargain prices, including students' works showcased in the cultural center lobby. A $70 starter kit will suffice beginners for a long time, said Simpson. "After that, all they need is a piece of wood." Simpson, former director of environmental health for Kentucky-based Ashland Oil, can attest to the hobby's health benefits. Nine years ago, he needed immediate quadruple bypass surgery. After two years of rehabilitation it was time to retire. His wife was adamant he find appropriate relaxation. "She was hunting for something for me to do where I would sit down and be still. She thought I was gonna die." An advertisement caught her eye and prompted a visit to a meeting of Sarasota's Gulf Coast Carvers Guild. "We went in there; that's all it took," Simpson said. He said carving is calming. "You think about other things. It's between you and the wood. Me and the wood have conversations. That's the only way to put it," he said. "My wife tells me I've had a knife and piece of wood in my hands forever" since then, Simpson said. Had he not discovered the relaxing pastime? "There's no telling where I'd be," he said. "I'd probably be dead." [email protected] (813) 259-7124


WHAT: Woodcarving

WHEN: 1 to 3 p.m. Fridays (next six-week session starts July 27)

WHERE: Carrollwood Cultural Center, 4537 Lowell Road

COST: $90 for center members, others $100; materials fee $60

INFORMATION: Carrollwoodcenter.org (click "creativity")

TELEPHONE: (813) 269-1310

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