Woodworking retiree is a carving artist; just drive by and see the wooden figures

Jim Reilly, 66, puts a final coat of protective paint on one of his woodcarvings for a gingerbread Christmas village. This is where the hobbyist spends hours tinkering. 

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Jim Reilly, 66, puts a final coat of protective paint on one of his woodcarvings for a gingerbread Christmas village. This is where the hobbyist spends hours tinkering. 

ST. PETERSBURG

Jim Reilly was the son of a woodcarver, with no interest in pursuing his dad's hobby. He was a lifer in the Navy and didn't think of himself as artistic. Then came a request he couldn't refuse. "My daughter was about 8 when she asked me to make her ghosts," said Reilly, 66, of St. Petersburg. "She wanted a haunted house. That was 18 years ago. I haven't stopped carving since. Slowed down some. I can't work 12 hours like I used to, but I work a little each day. Sometimes I can get in as many as five hours."

Drive by the Reilly house at 1778 30th Ave. N and wooden displays stand in the front and side yard. Carvings range from witches and ghosts at Halloween to bunnies, multicolored eggs and replicas of church windows with the words "He Is Risen'' at Easter. Holiday or not, Reilly's art attracts attention. Next Christmas season he plans to give passers-by a new treat.

"I'm working on a gingerbread village," he said. "I'll have about 20 houses, shops and buildings and 39 gingerbread characters. I started working in January."

Most of Reilly's art is carved from pine or plywood, depending on the scale of the work. He carefully paints each one, using exterior paint and then varnish to stand up to the Florida weather. He finishes up by outlining details like characters' eyes or the lines in his stained-glass windows.

Reilly creates his art in a small utility building behind his house, sharing space with a washer and dryer. He uses basic tools: a scrolling jigsaw, an electric sander, a pencil and a ruler. The workspace smells of sawdust. Just outside, shielded from the sun by an overhang, are containers of colorful paints. Chunks of wood wait in a corner for Reilly to work his magic.

Reilly's wife, Tina, 60, and his grandson, Randy Creamer, 24, come up with ideas. Both also draw and help him create patterns.

"My grandson, Randy, has a real talent. He's a good artist and takes after his grandmother. I'm sure he could learn to do what I do, but he's like me when I was young, not interested."

While Reilly occasionally sells his work, he mostly stays busy carving for family and friends.

"When I started, people liked what I made and I kept going,'' he said. "Since then, I get people who stop by to talk. I like that. I have friends I carve for and requests from family. I have stuff in Hawaii, New York and North Carolina."

Strangest carving? He has a few: an 8-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, a swan grave marker, and a pyramid and African mask a friend wanted to use on the set of a beauty pageant.

His favorite? A life-sized nativity scene.

Occasionally in the 30 years he has lived in St. Petersburg a neighbor has complained about the traffic the art attracts, but he usually gets only positive feedback.

"I wish he wouldn't spend so much time in his workshop," said Tina, his wife of 26 years, but she admits that her favorite carving is a whimsical piece, a farmer milking a big cow.

An artist herself, she draws anything Reilly asks. He says her details add depth to his work. He smiles when he talks about her.

Though Reilly may have begun woodcarving a bit later in life, it wasn't too late.

"Dad was sick when I showed him my first couple of pieces, but he smiled," Reilly said of his father, who has since died. "Dad could carve anything, toys, trucks, chimes and clocks."

Woodworking retiree is a carving artist; just drive by and see the wooden figures 05/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 5:31am]

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