STARMAKER: Craftsman creates, shares rustic works of art

Published 3:01 pm Sunday, November 8, 2015

HISTORIC BATH STATE HISTORIC SITE AT WORK: Sam Taylor measures tobacco sticks during a festival appearance. He’s known for his decorative stars made from tobacco sticks and handcrafted stools with woven seats.

AT WORK: Sam Taylor measures tobacco sticks during a festival appearance. He’s known for his decorative stars made from tobacco sticks and handcrafted stools with woven seats.

At 80 years old, Sam Taylor is hard at work, recycling the past and crafting nature into rustic works of art. After 30 years with the North Carolina Forestry Service, what began as a hobby has become a part-time second career making his signature rustic stools, hiking sticks and decorative stars recycled from the remnants of old eastern North Carolina farming: tobacco sticks.

And he’s enjoying every minute of it.

Taylor got his start after his grandmother died, when he and his mother refurbished several of her cane-bottomed antique chairs. Later, he’d buy old chairs missing their cane seats at bargain prices, paying $2.50 or $3 each, which he’d then restore and sell. He then shared his cane-repairing skills with the clients of the Blind Center of North Carolina in Washington where he volunteered. Ten years ago, however, he found his creative, rustic niche on a trip to Greenville with his friend Dottie Walker.

“One day, we went to Barnes & Noble in Greenville and I was looking in the crafts section and I found a book on rustic furniture and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ And I memorized (the book),” Taylor laughed.

He transformed himself from one who restored others’ creations into a crafter of his own.

“When you’re making your own thing you have a chance to design and make what you want to do as opposed to what somebody else has done,” Taylor said.

Now Taylor makes the rounds of eastern North Carolina festivals and his work can be found at Kay Woolard’s North Market Street gallery, Art on Market, in Washington. Several nonprofits count on Taylor to donate his stars to fundraisers where there’s an auction involved— invariably the bidding is always competitive for the decorative stars made of the narrow sticks once used to hang and dry tobacco.

The unique aspect of Taylor’s tobacco-stick stars is that they have provenance.

Taylor grew up on a farm on U.S. Highway 17 North, just across from where the North Carolina Highway Patrol Station is located now. At eight years old, like many boys of that generation, he was working in the fields, picking tobacco and making about 50 cents a day at first; later, $2 a day. Then, he worked at the Lee family’s farm, adjacent to his own home. Today, he’s set up shop on the farm he still owns with his sister and has been given unlimited access to the wealth of tobacco sticks next door.

“I’m working now with some of the same sticks that I worked with on the Lee Farm, that I worked with 70 years ago — some of the very same sticks — when I was helping Ralph Lee when I was working with him as young fellow,” Taylor said.

But not all tobacco sticks are created equal, Taylor said. There are two different types: the old ones that were machine sawn and the really old ones that were made by hand.

“The stars are made from the early hand-split sticks. As best I can research they came into Beaufort County about 1890; Gold Leaf tobacco, when they came down from Virginia through Vance County, was using the split sticks,” Taylor said. “They probably stopped doing the hand splitting about 1940 — they started sawing them out.”

Machine-sawn tobacco sticks have a more even, squared shape; the hand-split are rough, giving Taylor’s stars an even more rustic look.

Taylor is happy to share his acquired knowledge with others: he recently taught a star-making workshop at Beaufort County Community College and will teach another at the Historic Bath Visitor Center on Nov. 19. Taylor is teaching the upcoming Bath workshop at no charge; all proceeds will be donated to the children’s programming fund at Historic Bath in memory of Bea Latham, former assistant site manager.

“Whatever they bring in goes to them,” Taylor said. “And I can’t think of a better person to have (it go to) in honor of than Bea.”

Taylor’s Historic Bath workshop will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 19. Cost is $15 per person and space is limited. For more information or to register, call 252-923-3971.