Miles Burkholder Carpenter was born on May 12, 1889, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and was the son of Wayne M. Carpenter, a farmer, and Elizabeth R. Burkholder Carpenter. He attended a one-room school and with his ten siblings worked on the Mennonite family’s farm. In the spring of 1902 the family moved to Virginia, where his father acquired a 340-acre farm near Waverly, in Sussex County, and also constructed a sawmill. On May 19, 1915, Carpenter married Mary Elizabeth Stahl, of Carbon County, Pennsylvania. They had one son.
With financial assistance from his father Carpenter purchased a vacant factory in Waverly about 1912 and soon began operating a lumber mill that produced finished wood for local builders. He added his own sawmill to his enterprise and also began making and selling ice. For several years beginning about 1915 Carpenter joined a partner in operating an open-air theater showing silent movies. Occasionally tinkering with wood scraps, he made a violin and incised trinket boxes. During a slow period in his successful lumber business in 1941 he began whittling to pass the time. His first carving, a primitive polar bear, delighted his wife, who encouraged him to create more animals. The building boom following World War II (1939–1945) left Carpenter little opportunity for further woodcarving until several accidents suffered while operating machinery caused him to close his lumber mill in the mid-1950s.
Carpenter’s affinity for woodcarving probably derived from the rich Pennsylvania German folk art culture, a functional and ornamental tradition that inspired other members of his family to build furniture and clocks. His subjects included animals, especially birds, dogs, monkeys, pigs, and snakes, and human figures often expressing the artist’s quirky reflections on biblical subjects or on such current events as the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, or the 1973 protest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He also carved celebrity portraits of such notables as Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley, usually with an eye to their commercial value. His favored tools included chisels, files, hatchets, pocketknives, and saws.
Carpenter created sculptures in a naïve style using both whittling and assemblage. After sanding, polishing, and preparing each piece, he painted it, usually with enamel house paint. He dressed many of his human figures in handmade clothes. Some works included moving parts or sound effects, such as one multipiece sculpture of a female pig feeding a litter of piglets in a pen that he equipped with a noisemaker that squealed when squeezed. His early sculptures were representational, often small and carefully detailed. Later in his career driftwood, twisting tree limbs and roots, and other found pieces of wood inspired him to create larger, more interpretational works such as the nightmarish Root Monster and Sea Monster Catching a Fish. Of these fantastical, often deeply symbolic pieces Carpenter observed, “I see the hidden objects there and bring them almost to life.” He produced the majority of his carvings after his wife’s death on November 5, 1966.
Carpenter displayed his colorful sculptures at the roadside stand where he sold ice, drinks, and produce. To attract customers he carved a 200-pound watermelon, a piece eventually acquired by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. By the 1970s his work had drawn the attention of collectors, including Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. One of the preeminent folk art enthusiasts of the twentieth century and a founder of what became the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Hemphill helped win critical acclaim for Carpenter’s work. The sculptor received one-man shows at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1974 and 1985 and at the Yorktown Visitor Center in 1980. The Hand Workshop Art Center, in Richmond, and Radford University mounted centennial retrospectives in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Carpenter’s imaginative carvings have been included in numerous group exhibitions across the country and featured in publications on American folk art. Few other twentieth-century Virginia folk artists elicited such national enthusiasm. In 1981 the president invited Carpenter to the White House, and the next year the sculptor received a Visual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982 he published his autobiography, Cutting the Mustard.
Carpenter died in a Petersburg hospital on May 7, 1985, and was buried in Waverly Cemetery. The following year the Miles B. Carpenter Museum opened at his Waverly home to display his work and to provide an arts facility for area residents.
- Cutting the Mustard (1982)