In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d post a shorter version of the story I wrote for my March 15 Who & Ware column in the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.). To view or purchase Jim Potts’ amazing artwork, visit www.celticsigns.com.
DEEP GAP, N.C. — For Jim Potts, it all started with a barn. Potts, whose parents owned a department store in tiny Stanley in Gaston County, N.C., grew up to appreciate rural living. So when his grandfather’s barn in nearby Tennessee started to fall in, Potts knew he couldn’t let it go without paying his respects.
“I just picked up some of the wormy chestnut lumber and took it home with me,” said Potts, 59. “I was trying to figure out something to do with it so people could have a piece of Granddaddy’s barn in a community that was changing fast.”
He decided to make name signs by drawing the surname freehand and using a router to emboss it into the wood.
That was in 1985. Since then, Potts, who lives in Deep Gap, near Boone, has made thousands more, eventually adding Celtic-inspired lettering and then expanding into Celtic art carvings.
From 1978 to 1997, Potts served as a pastor in Baptist churches, mostly in Raleigh.
“In 1997 my wife and I went camping on family property in Deep Gap,” he said. “We could find no reason from God or man to leave.”
By then, Potts had turned to the Celtic style, inspired by a gift he made for someone of Scottish heritage and a desire to make his work more elaborate. “I already knew of the Book of Kells because it’s a text of the New Testament. It’s a handwritten illustrated manuscript 1,200 years old, and the script is known to be the high point of early medieval Celtic art. The style is really culturally appropriate here.” Many regions of North Carolina were settled by Scottish Highlanders and Scots-Irish, people from Northern Ireland.
Potts first sold his wares at the 1998 Merlefest, the music festival in Wilkesboro. “I went down with only 25 pieces of merchandise and sold them and came away with enough orders to keep me busy for six weeks,” he said. “Today I go to shows with 1,200 or 1,400 pieces of merchandise in my trailer.”
As orders from customers became more complex, so did Potts’ artwork.
“People started to ask me to do a Celtic knot. So I did a simple Celtic knot and then they asked me to do a more complex one. About five years ago, I felt I could figure it out if I just dived in. One year in the wintertime when things were slow, I just set aside the time and did these really fancy ones.” The intricate carvings titled “Doing Theology” and “Promptus et Fidelis,” both shown on his Web site, are the ones he is proudest of.
“From the simplest to the most complex, basically I work the same way,” Potts said. “I decide on a design and the names and letters, and I free-hand draw that on the wood with each sign before engraving. “With the knot designs, I draw it one time using the ancient grid method used by the medieval artists. You draw a grid of dots and you connect the proper dots and sometimes you have to curve the lines. It’s very geometric, and you have to know which dots to connect.”
Potts and his wife live on a century-old farm in a mountain holler.
“Every day we praise the Lord because we enjoy our peace and quiet,” he said. His studio is in a former chicken house. “By the time I got here, the essence of chickens had already left.” Potts laughed. “I don’t have a brick-and-mortar business, but people are welcome to visit by appointment.”