Summer Issue 2023

The Indefatigable Spirit of Willie Rascoe

By Jayne Moore Waldrop

Willie Rascoe makes art like a force of nature. In fact, his renowned folk art sculpture is fundamentally rooted in the natural world. 

As Rascoe talks about his work and the inspiration for each wood carving, he acknowledges nature as the guiding force. When he picks up a piece of wood, he studies its shape and texture. Each piece has its own unique characteristics. Ultimately, the wood itself determines the creative outcome.

“I let the wood lead the way. You don’t know where it’s going to lead you,” Rascoe said in a recent interview.

"I take my time, and it all works out."

Willie Rascoe shows off a handmade necklace fashioned from natural materials
Photograph courtesy of Camille Acosta

There’s a spiritual connection between the art and the artist. Rascoe’s work comes from some place deep inside him, the wood, the place he calls home. He’s a western Kentuckian, a man of Cerulean and Hopkinsville, an artist who collects materials from the region – driftwood, downed native trees like poplar and cherry, shed antlers, bits of bone and shells, berries that provide natural stains – and imagines what they might become. His sculpture stays true to nature and remains connected to its organic origins, with lines blurred between human, animal, plant, and spirit forms.

“Nature in the form of trees is something that has always fascinated me. Nature is everything,” he said. “Everything in the universe is dealing with art. Everything that God made is artwork.”

Rascoe grew up on his family’s farm near Cerulean, an unincorporated community that straddles Trigg and Christian counties. His family included five brothers and two sisters. In 1968, he graduated from Christian County High School in Hopkinsville, where he took art and industrial arts classes. He laughed as he confessed that he got a D in his high school art class, but that bad grade didn’t suppress his calling. After high school, Rascoe volunteered for military service during the Vietnam War and served from 1971-73. After his military service, he attended Hopkinsville Community College through the GI Bill.

Rascoe started carving wood in 1974 after picking up a piece of driftwood along the shores of Lake Barkley. “I felt images in this piece of wood,” he said. His first finished piece, which he titled “3-in-1,” was made from a piece of poplar wood using a carving set and sandpaper. He still owns the piece, and it’s still labeled NFS (not for sale).

During this time, Rascoe also worked full time as a carpenter, building and renovating houses. He kept carving, too. He worked on his art in the early mornings before his construction job, during lunch breaks, and in the evenings after work. He kept following his call.

The tools of his trade include knives, chisels, mallets, sandpaper, and sanders. For large-scale pieces, Rascoe begins to shape the wood with a chainsaw before he starts to carve. “Sometimes it takes many keys to unlock what’s inside a piece of driftwood,” he said.

As a self-taught wood sculptor, Rascoe worked on his art and his craft for nine years before he agreed to exhibit his work publicly. His first exhibit was at Trigg County Farmers Bank in Cadiz in the early 1980s. The show was a success. Rascoe’s work was received enthusiastically; fans began collecting his art.

Rascoe’s work has been exhibited at the Kentucky Folklife Festival in Frankfort, Janice Mason Art Museum in Cadiz, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, and the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead where he was featured in the African American Folk Art exhibit. He’s had work in international shows as well, including exhibits in France, Germany, and Thailand. His pieces are included in many private and the museum collections at the Kentucky Folk Art Center and the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.

A newspaper article covering Rascoe's "Folk Heritage Award" on display
Photograph courtesy of Camille Acosta

“He has an infectious excitement about him when he has an exhibit going up,” said Chris Cathers, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council. Cathers and Rascoe have collaborated on multiple projects over the years. “Artists of his experience and caliber sometimes get jaded about recognition and accolades, but with Willie you know that his appreciation is sincere.”

Rascoe is also well known throughout Kentucky for his work in schools as an arts educator. He encourages his students to recognize their own unique gifts. His work has been introduced to many schoolchildren through a widely distributed Harcourt social studies textbook that features his sculpture in a section about Kentucky music and art.

In 2012, Rascoe received the prestigious Tanne Award, a national prize presented by the Boston-based Tanne Foundation to recognize artists for outstanding achievement and for demonstrating exceptional talent and creativity. In 2015, he was honored at the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts as recipient of the Folk Heritage Award.

His most recent exhibit opened in May 2023 at the Bourne-Schweitzer Gallery in New Albany, Indiana. The show was called Three Brothers and included the work of Rascoe, LaVon Van Williams Jr. of Lexington, and Ed White of Louisville. The three men, all carvers, have been friends for decades. They are big fans of each other’s work, as well.

Artist LaVon Van Williams Jr. met Willie Rascoe more than thirty years ago at an annual art show called “A Day in the Country” at the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead.”

“When I first saw Willie’s work, I was so impressed,” Williams said.

"He’s one of the fathers of Kentucky folk art."

Williams is also an acclaimed wood sculptor and painter. He’s remembered by many for his years as a Kentucky Wildcat (1976-80) and as a star player on the 1978 NCAA basketball championship team. Following a professional basketball career, Williams came back to his true calling as a visual artist. The Lexington Herald-Leader once said that “the most interesting ex-UK basketball player is not in the NBA,” referring to Williams at the time of his induction into the university’s College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

Williams’ work has been shown in many exhibits and is included in art museums and collections around the world. He was honored with the 2007 Artist Award at the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts. His most recent work is a large-scale outdoor installation of a series of relief sculptures depicting the life of Isaac Murphy, the Black jockey who guided three Kentucky Derby winners into history. Williams’s carvings have been cast in metal and are now installed at Lexington’s Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at Third and Midland streets.

Williams holds Willie Rascoe’s art in high esteem. “Willie is a true craftsman. His finishes are the best,” Williams said, marveling at the perfection of Rascoe’s finished pieces. “It’s like those finishes can’t be duplicated. I don’t know how he does it. His work is so mysterious.”

Carved pieces line the walls of Rascoe's home
Photograph courtesy of Camille Acosta

The art of wood carving has been passed down through the Williams family. LaVon learned from his late brother, Dave Wright, who was taught by their great-uncle. Williams believes that his late brother, Dave Wright, and Willie Rascoe share traits that put them in a different category of wood carvers, each working at a high level worthy of utmost respect. He sees their art in a light similar to the tradition of griots, the West African word for storytellers.

“The thing I like about Willie is that his work comes from his soul,” Williams said. “Wood carving comes from the soul. It’s coming from a really spiritual place.”

Williams says his own technique is more modern. He buys wood from a supplier and draws out the design before he starts to carve, where artists like his late brother and Rascoe “go out into the woods, and find a piece, and get to work.”

Ed White is the third artist in the Three Brothers sculpture exhibit. “I’m the little brother,” he said with a laugh. He came to carving later than Rascoe and Williams, who have both been important influences as well as supporters of his work. White is well known among Kentucky artists for his thirty-year role as founder and executive director (now emeritus) of Louisville’s River City Drum Corps. He and his wife, the late Zambia Nkrumah, started the drum corps in 1991 as a west Louisville nonprofit arts and education-based program for youth and families. The programming includes pipe drumming, drumline, percussion, piano, cultural arts enhancement, leadership and social skills development, career exploration, and professional skills development. For his work with the drum corps, White has received numerous awards, including the Folk Heritage Award of the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

When White retired in 2016, he turned to his new artistic endeavor: wood carving. White sees similarities between the arts of carving and drumming. “There’s a rhythm in carving,” he said. He’s known both Rascoe and Williams for years; he’s also a committed student of their work. He drives to Lexington once a month to work with Williams in person.

White first met Rascoe at the Kentucky Folklife Festival in Frankfort in the early 2000s. Rascoe’s work grabbed him from the start.

“The greatest thing I’ve learned from Willie is that the spirit of the work will speak to you,” White said. “I used to think that was crazy, but now I know it’s true.”

While working with a recent piece, White learned the meaning of Rascoe’s advice. “I yielded to the spirit, and it’s a beautiful piece. It just says, ‘I told you so.’”

“The imagination and the craftsmanship of Willie’s work reinforces his belief to let the spirit speak to you,” White said. “It can only come from the spirit. That’s the power of his work.”

Photograph courtesy of Camille Acosta

For Willie Rascoe, the year 2020 brought both reward and challenge.

Each year the Kentucky Arts Council commissions a Kentucky artist to make the awards presented to each of the nine winners of the annual Governor’s Awards in the Arts. The commission is for ten awards, with the tenth award staying in the arts council’s permanent collection. Months ahead of the 2020 awards ceremony, Rascoe received the commission to create the prize. Cathers said Rascoe was chosen for his talent and his trademark enthusiasm as he creates art.

“If you set aside his tremendous talent, I think one of the greatest things about Willie is his enthusiasm,” Cathers said. “When we commissioned him to create the Governor’s Awards in the Arts in 2020, he really grabbed onto the task, and you could already tell that whatever he came up with was going to be the result of intention and great thought and care.”

Rascoe said he was honored to receive the commission. As a past recipient of a Governor’s Award, he knows what the pieces mean to the honorees.

“When the Kentucky Arts Council contacted me about making the pieces, I said there’s a good possibility I could do it, but wasn’t 100 percent sure,” Rascoe said. “I was down the street visiting a friend, and as I walked home, every step I took I was telling myself, ‘Don’t say no. Say yes.’ By the time I got home, I was sure.”

For the award sculptures, he used cherry salvaged from a large tree that had come down in a tornado fifteen years earlier. The pieces gleam with a rich, warm color and a smooth, almost velvety feel, all signs of that legendary Rascoe finish.

“I wanted the design for the Governor’s Award not to be a piece that you could easily tell what it is. Some work you can look at automatically and tell what it is. I wanted this piece to be different,” Rascoe said in his artist statement about the awards. “Wanted it to be admired from many angles. You can turn the piece and get different views as you revolve around it. Which is the back? Which is the front? You don’t really know. It is what it is.”

Rascoe admits he was nervous about making the pieces because of the acclaimed list of recipients. The 2020 list included country music artist Tom T. Hall, novelist Silas House, American quilt expert Shelly Zegart, and Michael Johnathon, known worldwide for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

“Every time I’d grab a tool and start on something, I was like, ‘I’ve gotta be extra careful because I know where these are going,’” he said.

Photograph courtesy of Camille Acosta

And then, about a week after he’d finished the last of the ten awards, Rascoe started to feel sick. In fact, he felt bad enough to take to his bed, which isn’t normal for him. A friend came to check on him and insisted on calling an ambulance. Rascoe didn’t have the strength to walk, so he left his home on a gurney and was taken to the closest hospital. He tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in the Hopkinsville emergency room and was taken to a larger hospital in Madisonville. Rascoe remembers going through the doors to the hospital, but nothing after that. Seriously ill, he required intubation. He spent twenty-three days in the hospital, including eight days on a ventilator. When he was finally released from the hospital and went home, his daughter stayed with him until he regained his strength.

These days, he’s back at work, sitting in the shade of a big tree in his Hopkinsville backyard. If it’s hot, he runs an extension cord and turns on a fan. He’s got big plans.

“I have new ideas right now. It keeps coming. If God’s willing, I will proceed and get these ideas into form,” he said. He’s not worried about time.

“This has never felt like work,” he said. “I don’t want to rush my pieces. You have to be patient. There are no shortcuts.”

Jayne Moore Waldrop is a writer, attorney, and the author of four books: Drowned Town, A Journey in Color: The Art of Ellis Wilson, Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems, and Retracing My Steps. She lives in Lexington.