Local artisan finds his groove with hand carved canes

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, or so the saying goes. Perhaps that works in proverbs, but sometimes idle hands offer untold opportunities as well. Such was the case for Herbert Harris. While recovering from back surgery in 2014, this paraprofessional in the Northwest Middle School and co-director of the Kid Zone program at M.E. Pearson Elementary School found his groove while creating hand-carved canes. Four years later, he hasn’t gone a month without creating a new one for a client. Armed with a Drimmel tool, a variety of whittling knives, and a keen eye for ‘tattooing’ his visions into wood, Harris draws out deeply personal art from the blank canvas of wood. Peek inside his workshop and the mind of a master. 

How did you get started making canes? 

I had back surgery on a herniated disk and I was just kind of stuck at the house. I come from a family of makers–I have family members that make crafts, do photography, and videography. I had this stick, a branch really, that reminded me of elephant ears. I started carving on it sitting on my deck, waiting for my wife to come home. My brother is a sculptor and artist out in L.A. and I showed it to him and he encouraged me to keep making them. So I kept going. I started one that I was carving flowers into and I took it in to work and was showing it around. One of the girls that I work with asked how much and I told her my brother had said not to accept anything less than $100. And she said, “I’ll buy it!” She wanted it for her grandmother and she wanted it to have a religious theme. So I carved a nativity scene and Jesus walking and a cross. . . I made them so they all tied together. She ordered another one for her uncle, a walking stick with a peacock theme. And I haven’t stopped making them since!

What are your favorite materials to work with? 

I start with a blank basswood stick from Treeline USA. It’s a white wood that takes carving well. I also collect stray limbs that I find along the way. I’ve also used blackthorn limb to make a shillelagh for a client that had Irish roots. It’s a dark wood stick with a knob on the top. For him, I also inlaid the shillelagh with turquoise and brass with his name and a Celtic braid. When it comes to the tops, I’ll use anything that I can find. I used a drawer pull for one that needed a lion’s head. 

Do you have any formal training in woodworking? 

I do a lot of experimenting. If I have anything that I don’t know how to do, I’ve learned it on YouTube. I do come from an artsy family. We’ve always made things. My great great uncle was Joseph Yocum. His artwork is in the Smithsonian. I’m also a Quindaroan. My family goes back to the 1850s in the Quindaro settlement. 

How much time do you devote to your art? 

I spend most weekends in the shop and generally spend a few hours each night on them too. It’s work but it’s relaxing too.