Artist makes sculptures inspired by African tribal art

Published 11:30 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Just off a short gravel road in the backwoods of Pearl River County is the cluttered outdoor workshop of Velleph Travis.

That workshop — work area might be a better description — is really just a portion of his yard carved out of the edge of a small wooded spot near a paved county road. If you try to contact Travis by telephone during the day, be patient, he’s probably outside and can’t hear the phone.

It is here that Travis creates his unique reproductions of wooden African tribal figurines and other African cultural items. He has searched the Internet for information on more than 200 tribal cultures in Africa and many of his sculptures are taken from those cultures’ folklore.

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Travis has not been at his craft for long, starting in 2004 as a result of a medical condition.

He said effects of medication for a condition related to military service began affecting his concentration. His doctor said Travis had lost some short term memory and that the condition appeared to be worsening, even affecting his ability to work. He has a degree from Pearl River Community College was as an electrician and air-conditioning/refrigeration. He was still trying practice that vocation when he began having memory problems.

Travis was told some type of activity to keep his mind focused on the task at hand would help.

He looked back over his life and remembered an interest in woodwork and carving. He began searching the Internet for ideas which opened an almost unlimited wealth of information and illustrations on African figurines carved from wood. He said one website had illustrations from a lot of different African tribes’ art.

“I was looking at it and I said, ‘I could make that, you know,’ so I just bought the different tools that I would need.”

Those tools include a power saw to cut scrap wood to size, depending on the type of carving he plans to make. Another well-used tool is a smaller hand-held grinder with a small circular blade to further define the details of a statue.

A part of his yard — his workshop — is littered with small piles of wood, three or four old benches with different carvings in various stages of completion, and his tools.

“I can’t just do one piece until I finish it because my mind won’t stay focused long enough,” he said. “I keep several pieces going at one time so if I get tired (of one he can work on another).”

Sometimes the wood itself will dictate what he makes.

“When I get a piece of wood that has a real weird shape to it, then I might … put a head from the Fulani (tribe) and I may just put a body of a tribe from the Ivory Coast or the Congo.”

As for the wood itself, he says Hurricane Katrina provided a wealth of material.

“All this wood and stuff came from Katrina. There was no shortage of wood after that,” he says with a wave of his hand to a pile of debris and a slight laugh.

Now that people know what he’s doing, family and friends are always dropping by with the odd piece of wood or two they might find.

“If they come across an odd-shaped piece of wood, so they would save it for me and say, ‘Hey, I got a piece of wood you might want.’”

He wood piles include what is commonly called “lighter,” cedar (one piece from a neighbor who lost the tree in Katrina), pecan, crepe myrtle, cherry and a piece of hand-hewn timber from his grandfather’s (Amos Henry) former store. His parents Junior and Iola Travis still live nearby.

When he finishes a piece he takes it inside until he decides what stain to use finish it. He says a few are left natural but most are stained.

It was after Katrina that his work caught the attention of more than just friends and family. Katrina forced him to temporarily move to Columbus, in 2005 where he continued his new-found skill.

While there, he showed some for his pieces to the Columbus Art Council which accepted his craft for display. Of course he jokes that every time one of his grandsons visits he has to have one granddad’s sculptures.

“My biggest fan is my grandson,” he says.

He says he has sold a few pieces but many are just given away to friends.

One of the carvings currently underway — an upright piece of wood with two uneven tops in vague human shape that will eventually take on recognizable details — has been inspired by President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia. He’s stopped work on that for the moment because he’s waiting until the First Family’s daughters choose their dog so he will be able to add that to the front of the sculpture.

Another couple of interesting pieces are based on a unique African game called “mankala.” Travis says it is supposed to be the oldest game known to man, even the Egyptians have representations of the game in their antiquity. He says originally players — sometimes the men watching herds — would take seeds, make a circle of small holes in the ground, and by dropping their five seeds in the holes eventually determine a winner.

When the game was over, the seeds were just left in the ground where they could eventually sprout, supplying new trees or bushes or some other plant , depending on the seeds used in the game. Travis says at some point the game was transferred to a hand-made wooden device.

He says some people, when they see the art and the things that inspired them, may think of evil images, such as an idol or other bad totem but “every piece in here was always (designed) for some type of protection,” such as an expectant mother wanting a healthy baby.

Travis says someone in the village would carve the figurine, get it blessed by the village holy man and then present the figure to the mother for a safe delivery of a healthy baby.

“All of it was always for protection, whether it was protection against bad weather, natural disasters … people have a really, really bad misconception, because some of them do look weird, now,” he laughed.

“It’s just interesting stuff and that’s why I do it,” Travis says. “Even though you can’t work a full job (for a living), you just can’t sit down. It’s been a good experience for me to do this.”

He has a logo he designed that he places on all his pieces, a stylized triangular face.

“So maybe 50 or a 100 years from now my grandson or whoever got one can say, ‘That was my granddad’s logo or my great-granddad’s logo.’”