The biggest and most unusual work of art on display last month at the Agricultural Fair was “The Grim Reaper.” Scaring little kids and adults alike with its hollow eye sockets and beckoning bony fingers, this towering wood statue won first prize for sculpture, as well as a Special Award. It’s back home now in the Lambert’s Cove studio of its creator, carpenter and wood sculptor Simon Hickman.
The Reaper originated as the trunk of a Music Street Elm tree in West Tisbury and evolved over the past year. “You have to hollow out the wood soon after you get it, or it will check, or crack,” Mr. Hickman says. Checking occurs when a large piece of wood dries faster on the outside.
The Reaper’s skull, skeletal parts, and the blade of the scythe he carries are made of rosewood. The limb of a tulip tree outside Mr. Hickman’s workshop proved just the right fit for the Reaper’s giant scythe handle. A garment made of hammered copper mail, topped by a short cape, covers the figure’s torso. A light bulb gives the creature an eerie glow. To accommodate Mr. Reaper, who reaches 10 feet from his feet to his cowl, Mr. Hickman had to reconfigure his workshop. He installed a carrying beam for a chain hoist so that he could maneuver the tree trunk and “make sure he didn’t run out on me.”
The Reaper joins many other sculptures in Mr. Hickman’s collection, some of which fairgoers may remember from past years. They are the products of a wonderfully perfervid imagination and include Vlad the Impaler, the Tower of Babel, and the Titanic. In addition to the sculptor’s stores of wood, objects salvaged from the backyard of his 16-acre former farm make their way into his art. One of his Agricultural Fair entries, a full-sized maple shark, now hangs suspended from airplane wire in the family’s pool house.
“If you touch his tail, he’ll swim for 45 minutes,” Mr. Hickman says, pointing to the surface spalting, patterns caused by a fungus feeding on the sap in the wood.
“I average about one piece a year,” he says. “I only do it when I have a big chunk of time.” These products of long, painstaking hours of work have sensuously smooth, highly polished surfaces and all – with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Reaper – invite touching.
Born in England and raised in Kenya, Mr. Hickman is an inveterate saver and a collector. Arriving on the Vineyard in 1978 to work on an Edgartown restoration project, he never left. He had spent part of his youth hitchhiking in Australia and Indonesia and pursued his artistic bent then by creating oil paintings.
“I’m kind of saving oil painting for my retirement,” he says.
Each of the artist’s creations has a story behind it. He bought the rosewood log used in the Reaper 30 years ago. It came from a stack of the tropical wood stored behind the site of the long-gone Nobnocket Garage and former home of the Artworker’s Guild, a 70s landmark in Vineyard Haven. A chair in Mr. Hickman’s studio is made of native honey locust, and this very hard wood allowed him to incorporate lots of detail while keeping the piece structurally sound. A grimacing head he calls “How Do You Feel” started as an oak burl and has teeth cut from the ivory keys the sculptor rescued off a piano about to be bulldozed at the town dump.
Farm parts from hay wagons, horse buggies, and tools have gone into a throne-like chair, complete with hoofed arms and a tail. Made of chokecherry, a finely hatched lizard has humanoid hands. Pieces of metal Mr. Hickman found in the woods on his property help provide the necessary support for a table fashioned from Linden trees. Serving as a dumping ground for the caretaker of the old Makonikey Hotel, the wetlands at the back of the Hickman property has produced silver forks and spoons, along with many other discards.
Other examples of his skill at rescuing abandoned materials include the concrete balustrade from a French villa on-Island that now rims the family’s swimming pool. A massive mantelpiece from the Corbin-Norton mansion in Oak Bluffs graces his living room, and he has fashioned chandeliers from deer antlers. The giant Linden that once shaded Main Street near the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven is now a bar in his pool house. Mr. Hickman volunteered to remove the rotten tree, after the Town advertised to find a home for it. The sculptor discovered the tree was almost entirely hollow, so he made a trapdoor in the trunk, lowered himself inside with a chainsaw, and cut it in half to save what had not rotted. When necessary, he makes his own tools, in one case attaching a chisel to a copper pipe so he could work in a narrow cavity.
“As I get older, my sculptures are getting bigger and heavier,” Mr. Hickman says. He hasn’t exhibited much outside of the Agricultural Fair, although for several years he and his wife Marion, a calligrapher, ran Chickamoo Gallery with the late Richard Lee, in the barn that now houses his Lambert’s Cove studio. He suggests the subjects of his often surrealist imagination are no cup of tea for people buying art on the Island.
“I haven’t given up my day job,” he says, although his website, makes it easier to spread the word.
Mr. Hickman’s current project is to put the finishing touches on Mr. Reaper. He will protect the sculpture’s wood surfaces with oil and replace the pointy lead poulaines, or medieval-style shoes, with wooden feet.
“I’m nearly out of wood,” Mr. Hickman says. “If anybody has an old tree they want to get rid of, they should get in touch.”