Jerry Nelson: Follow the fracture

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Rocks are the bane of a farmer’s existence. They are the one crop we can depend upon; a new harvest of stones appears each spring even though we never planted any mineral-based seeds.

Jim Wakeman has an entirely different way of thinking about rocks. He sees rocks – or wood or clay, for that matter – as an outlet for his carving artistry.

Jim, whose father was a teacher, grew up in Brookings, South Dakota. In his early 20’s, Jim found himself in southern California, drifting from job to job. When he took a position as an assistant surveyor, something clicked.

“I loved surveying and doing map work,” Jim said. “I kept at it and eventually became a licensed surveyor in several states.”

Jim returned to Brookings and earned degrees in computer science and surveying at SDSU. He later moved to Las Cruces and taught computer mapping and mathematics at New Mexico State University.

Jim also began to perform consulting and surveying work for various entities, work that took him to the far corners of the globe. He spent so much time in the Middle East that he learned to speak and read Arabic.

“I’ve been on five continents,” Jim said. “I also lived in the Arctic for a month and taught kids about surveying.”

Jim’s world changed at Christmastime of 2002.

“My wife, Carolyn, and I were traveling from Las Cruces to Brookings to spend time with family,” Jim said. “We were headed east on I-40, a few miles west of the Texas border. Carolyn was driving and I was taking a siesta. I felt the car thump and looked up to see a truck pulling over into our lane.”

The semi’s rear wheels slammed into the passenger side of the Wakemans’ car and dragged it more than 800 feet.

“I came to with a truck tire sitting across my chest, abdomen and pelvis,” Jim said.

Emergency crews worked for over an hour to extract Jim from the wreckage. In the end, Jim suggested that things might go faster if they simply backed the truck up. They did and he was soon freed.

Jim spent several weeks in the ICU with broken ribs, a crushed pelvis and numerous internal injuries.

“A week before the accident I was tromping around in Ghana, mapping a sacred jungle. I left the hospital in a wheelchair.”

Jim underwent extensive physical therapy and eventually regained the ability to walk short distances with a cane. But his injuries left him in constant pain.

“I tell people that I was retired by a truck tire at age 52,” said Jim with a wry grin.

Unable to work, Jim was at a loss as to what to do with himself.

“I have always loved art,” Jim said. “I have always drawn, but none of my work was satisfactory.”

A friend suggested that Jim try carving as a way to keep his mind occupied and as a distraction from his pain. Jim took this advice, and something again clicked. He embarked on the task of teaching himself how to carve.

“I’ve discovered that I really enjoy carving stone, especially marble,” Jim said. “You have to let the stone speak to you as you carve. You have to work with its flaws and let it flow. Hopefully, you end up with something that has beauty and symmetry.”

Jim recently carved a chess set from black and white marble.

“That was a fun project,” Jim said. “The black pieces in the king’s row are all mythical Norse figures. Loki and Thor are the bishops. The black marble had a streak of white running through it. I managed to carve Thor in such a way that the white streak became a bolt of lightning shooting from his hammer.”

Jim also enjoys creating works that are abstract.

“I had a piece of alabaster in my workshop that I studied for a couple of years. There was something about it that suggested smoke or flame. As I began to carve it, I found that it had a crack. I followed the fracture and ended up with what I think is one of my most seminal works.”

Jim’s piece titled Story in Stone (Follow the Fracture) is sinuous and flowing, a mesmerizing amalgam of the liquid and the solid. He has used his pain to transform lifeless stone into something alive and ineffable.

Even though his works have won awards and have been sold at art galleries in Las Cruces, Jim doesn’t consider himself a professional artist.

“I’m not an artist. I’m just a carver,” he insists.

OK. But the rocks that have received Jim’s attentions might beg to differ.

Jim Wakeman.