I challenge you to find another individual with a more eclectic CV than artist-cum-woodcarver Jim Heath, 69. A Chirk resident since 1993, Jim has dabbled in television and film set builds, working in a men’s fashion boutique in the height of hippy sixties, tried his hand at carpentry, flirted with life as a ‘fentsterputzer’ in Germany (window cleaner) and joined the Royal Marines, leading to a stint in the Intelligence Department. This is a man who could kill you with his bare hands. “I’d just prefer not to,” Jim laughs. Jim laughs a lot.
We discuss the many and varied ways he has skillfully used those big hands of his throughout his working life over coffee in the delightful Willow Gallery in Oswestry. Jim can often be found there chatting cheerfully with chums on a Tuesday while wife Jenny shops. Jim doesn’t shop. Five decades spent variously crafting film and television props (he built the Angels’ ejector seats in the Captain Scarlet TV series), creating exceptional wood sculptures, sketching intricately detailed architectural features and carving magical, mythical creatures into huge forest oaks have taken their toll on those hands. They tell a tale all by themselves. Jim candidly fills in the rest.
“I never felt any sense of belonging as a child and frequently felt the urge to move on,” he confides, instantly providing a back story to the innumerable jobs in countless countries over a number of years. “My life mantra has always been ‘if you stop enjoying it, stop doing it’, and I’m glad I didn’t allow myself to simply settle into something I didn’t love doing.” In truth, Jim knew precisely what he really wanted to do. Go to art school.
His “small ‘c’ conservative father” was unimpressed with teenage Jim’s ambition. “He told me in no uncertain terms that the quicker I got a job and started contributing to the household, the better,” he confides. And so began Jim’s journey into adulthood… work, wanderlust, worldliness.
Hopping from job to job became second nature to this most affable of men for the best part of 30 years. It opened up an array of experiences that would test the mettle of most of us. The grueling physicality and mental endurance of life in the Royal Marines proved the catalyst to developing his confidence and self-reliance. Countless years spent travelling exposed him to many different cultures and provided Jim with the opportunity to develop a range of language skills, Cantonese and German to name a few. A voracious appetite for life and learning was largely fed by the world of art.
Throughout Jim’s innumerable journeys across Continents, his sketchbook was a constant companion. Finding inspiration in moments, people, places, the burning desire he’d harboured since his teens to go to art school remained unsated.
Finally, aged 38, whilst living on a canal boat, a sense of calm and belonging set in, and with it a burgeoning passion took hold thanks to a trainee position with a well known woodcarver, David Williamson. “It was whilst I was working alongside Dave that I tried my hand at various commissions and reproductions. He was a good tutor and mentor.” Gradually, Jim found that all too familiar urge to move on diminished. “I felt I’d found my niche. I really enjoyed the work and although it wasn’t quite ‘art’, it did satisfy my desire to be creative,” he adds. “So there I was at the age of 38, finally discovering what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he chuckles.
The next five years saw Jim, and his delightful partner Jenny, spend a significant amount of time attending folk festivals, going on Morris dancing tours and boating from Uxbridge to London, up to Hertford and on occasion to Bishop’s Stortford. “I loved life on the water.”
By now, Jim was teaching carpentry and joinery and taking on an increasing number of private commissions for carving work; predominantly small animal and bird sculptures during the evening and odd weekends he looks back on this time as the beginning of his first steps towards the long-held art school dream. Those next steps saw Jim and Jenny up sticks and move to Chirk in 1993 where he set up a workshop doing reproduction and restoration woodcarving and sculpting.
“One of my first major pieces was a Welsh dragon commissioned by Kronospan for a big trade show in Singapore. They wanted to showcase their MDF (medium density fibreboard”. I was paid handsomely for that,” he says proudly. These days, the hand-carved dragon is painted in fiery red and lives in the Hand Hotel, Chirk.
That Welsh dragon is the first of many spectacular pieces of work Jim has created that are bookended by the Hands at the head and foot of Chirk and the Ceiriog Valley. The striking ‘bloodied red’ hand wood sculpture at the top of the valley stands pleading for attention like an eager swot outside The Hand Hotel at Llanarmon. It is a source of much comment and admiration for visitors to the valley’s flagship dining venue.
If you like a story with a happy ending, you’ll be delighted to learn that Jim’s lifelong ambition to go to art school was eventually realised. He attained a BA (Hones) in Fine Art at the North Wales School of Art in 2005.
A sometimes chaotic early life, punctuated by difficult relationships but unbounded by an irrepressible ebullience and appetite for adventure, eventually led to a calmer, more settled life with Jen in Chirk. Jim’s enduring love for art continues unfettered by ageing and an “inconvenient” heart condition. His lifelong companion – a sketchbook, volume number unknown – is a permanent fixture in his trouser pocket. You can’t keep a good man down. And gentleman Jim is definitley one of the good guys. Just as well… those big old calloused hands are trained to kill!