Warren Thompson: A Self-Taught Artist Carving Out the Past

Warren Thompson: A Self-Taught Artist Carving Out the Past

Article by  Yvonne and Vernon Carter 

Photographs by Vernon Carter

Sitting in his immaculate home in the Northern Neck of Virginia, Warren Thompson gazes out at his well-manicured lawn. Around the perimeter of his backyard are a workshop, two storage sheds and a two-car garage. The 94-year-old built the structures himself. “My brother Carroll, who died in 2010, built my house, and he helped me build another garage back there. He built his own home, the house next door, and the one across the street. Carroll worked with a contractor in Washington, D.C. When he moved home, he started building houses on his own. My oldest brother, Alonzo, helped him.”

Warren Thompson was born in 1929 on his father’s farm in the Northern Neck. He grew up in a family of resourceful artisans. His mother, Lillian, and her sister, Dorothy, were seamstresses who designed and made clothes for women and children. As adolescents, Thompson and his brothers dismantled tomato baskets and made play carts and airplanes. “We used the thin parts of the baskets to make the wings.”

After serving a tour of duty in the military during the Korean War, Thompson moved to Washington, D.C., where he trained to become a shoe cobbler. “I decided to work for Safeway because they paid much more than I could make repairing shoes. I drove a truck for Safeway in Landover, Md., for 20 years.” He lived 20 years in the District and moved to Clinton, Md., where he resided another twenty years.

Thompson’s propensity to create artwork came after he retired and moved back to the Northern Neck. “I began wood carving in 1992. While my wife, Marie, watched her stories on television, I was in my shop carving.” His wife passed away in 2014 after almost 55 years of marriage.

Today, when the notion hits him, Thompson spends hours in his workshop carving small-scale models of motor vehicles and building replicas of churches, school buildings, and lighthouses. “When I have less to do in the evening, I may tinker on several things. Then again, I may not go back for three weeks. I have nothing else to do, but I’m blessed to be around all of this time.”

A self-taught wood carver, Thompson focuses on the more familiar structures that are reminders of bygone times in the Northern Neck. He sketches his perception of what he remembers of the article before he begins building or carving. “At an auction, I saw a yellow and black car and thought: I think I can make that. I memorized what I saw, came home, drew it on paper, and carved it.”

Learning by doing, Thompson saws and shaves large pieces of wood using various electrical and hand tools. With sharp pocket knives, he whittles the minute aspects of the item into a refined, eye-catching prototype of the actual object. Although he pays attention to intricate details, he does not make an exact copy of the original version.

The replica of the Lively Hope Baptist Church in the Northern Neck is based on Thompson’s memory of the earlier facade, when the exterior was clapboard. The current edifice is brick. The exterior of Thompson’s scale model is made of small strips of stained pine to resemble clapboard. His version of the church does not have a metal roof like the original, but both churches have lunette windows.

In some of Thompson’s churches, double front doors open into furnished sanctuaries filled with parishioners seated on cloth-covered pews. Many of Thompson’s historical structures have removable roofs and operable doors. Carpet on the center aisle of the sanctuary below leads to a minister at the podium on a pulpit, with a choir and musicians behind him.

Thompson does not sell his artwork. He prefers to give his artworks to family and friends who are dear to him. “I never thought about selling any of my pieces. I gave several pieces to my family and to friends who deserve them. I gave my grandchildren, Howard and Gwen, four or five pieces. I gave one to Holley Graded School that looks like the school.”

He built a scale model of the school based on his assessment of how the school looks. His duplicate of the four-room school is not painted white like the existing structure. He attended the Holley Graded School, several miles from his childhood home in the Northern Neck. Freed slaves and northern white activists founded the school three years after the Civil War. The structure exists today and is now on the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

Thompson sketches the lighthouses on paper before constructing his scale models. His lighthouses are evocative of the Great Wicomico River Lighthouse built in the Northern Neck in 1889 and the Drum Point Lighthouse built in Maryland on the Patuxent River in 1883. Like these historical lighthouses, Thompson’s hexagonal and octagonal structures are wooden with dormers and a cupola light room. Builders placed these types of “screw-pile” lighthouses on iron foundations anchored in the river’s bottom.

Thompson carves cars and trucks he remembers from his young adult years. He carves the shape of a truck or car in pine, poplar, or cedar. Contrary to what other woodcarvers may say, he insists, cedar is easy to carve. He uses a saber saw, a light, portable electric saw with a pointed reciprocating blade, to cut out his cars and trucks. Using electric sanders with different grades of sandpaper, he does a tremendous amount of sanding to refine the surface of the wood. “I use power tools most of the time,” Thompson points out. “I carve the little things by hand, and I trim as much as I can with a pocket knife. On the rest, I use a sander. I have three sanders because I want my work to look nice and smooth.”

Some of his cars resemble 1932 or 1934 Fords, a 1936 Chevrolet truck, a sporty English-built MG, and a Packard with a rumble seat. Their clean lines and sculpted, smooth surfaces are outstanding examples of Thompson’s carving skills and his attention to detail. He coats his cars with high gloss paint to create a genuine sheen. The average size of his models is 12 to 20 inches in length.

One of his trucks looks like a Ford with an open wooden trailer, and another resembles an International or Mack truck with an enclosed standard trailer. “Don’t ask me what type of truck that is. I made it, but all I know is it’s a truck with mud flaps on the back.”

MG by Warren Thompson. Photo by Vernon Carter

Like the cars, the trucks have cut-out hard plastic windshields. He created the silver exhaust pipes on the cab of the truck by cutting small plumbing tubes, bending them into shape, and attaching them to the sides of the cab. He made the gas tanks on the trucks by rounding small chunks of wood and painting them silver. Although he purchased several tires for his replica cars and trucks, Thompson carved wood tires for some vehicles and glued silver painted discs to the centers of the tires to mimic hubcaps. Like the buildings, many of the car and truck doors open. Thompson built all his structures, cars, and trucks with dials, pegs, and glue.

Northern Neck residents value Thompson’s wood carvings, and he appreciates seeing others enjoy his outstanding works of art. “Most people who see my work like it. Some people are amazed, and others are not,” Thompson, an unpretentious man, says.

VERNON & YVONNE CARTER are the authors of A Man Inspired by God: the Art, Music and Ministry of Elder Anderson Johnson. YVONNE CARTER taught at Bowie State University and retired as a writer and editor for the federal government, including publications on the Civil Rights Movement. Since retiring from the federal government, VERNON CARTER has worked in the film production industry and appeared in several television series and movie productions. An avid art collector, he has exhibited his photographs in several galleries nationwide. Currently, he is a tour guide at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Folk Art Society of America.

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