Charleston Gazette
Grin and grain
Charleston man finds fun in art that grows out of trees

By Sandy Wells
Published: 03/15/2006 Steve

He's got this official high-sounding title: legislative analyst for the House Committee on Government Organization. Not the kind of thing that invites cocktail conversation, right?

At his desk in the Capitol, he does paralegal research for lawyers. He helps them draft bills and amendments. He helps constituents with questions and problems. And of course, he analyzes. Heavy, mind-bending stuff.

But Steve Thompson has his lighter side.

"I transitioned to totem poles about three years ago," he said.

Totem poles?

"I made the first one and I couldn't stop laughing," he said. "I've got about 10 now. It's too much fun."

About 10 years ago, he started painting. He painted saw blades and slate, the kind of things you see at art festivals and craft fairs.

Some friends had a rotted totem pole that toppled to the ground. They knew he was artistic. They asked him to restore it. The entire time he worked, temptation nudged him. "They'd had a bunch of trees cut down by their house. There were all these whole trees laying around."

So what do you think he did?

He made a totem pole, of course. How could he resist?

Now, he's bewitched. "When I'm working on one, I don't want to put it down. It will get dark and I won't realize it until I miss the chisel with my hammer and hit my wrist."

He keeps several in his apartment near the Capitol and has several more on the property of friends in Lincoln County where he does the sculpting.

His totems are primarily oak. He cuts the length, skins the bark, then picks up a hammer and chisel and carves "whatever the spirit moves me to create." He sands by hand, then switches to an electric sander to achieve a smooth finish.

He prefers them unpainted. "I really enjoy the wood grains," he said. "I've been using linseed oil to bring the grains out."

Animals and other objects carved on totem poles symbolize a family, tribe or clan, he said. They're like coats of arms in wood. The totems tell a kind of story.

"I'm part Blackfoot Sioux," he said, "so I've always had an affinity for Indian cultures."

If Thompson sculpted a totem pole to symbolize the story of his life, he'd need a tree the size of a redwood. The legislative analyst is a Renaissance man with a background in construction, catering and country music.

Steve grew up in Pittsburgh. "My father used to bring me rock climbing in West Virginia," he said. Looking for a rural setting to call home, he settled here after his discharge from the Navy in 1984.

His first job as a butcher's apprentice kept him at the Richwood Foodland until the store burned in 1987. He switched to construction. He entered a Morgantown Dominion-Post cooking contest for appetizers and won first place.

"I did contract catering part-time for the next 15 years. And I cooked for two fraternities. I was always looking for the second or third job."

The need for health benefits following the birth of his son led him to the Monongahela County Health Department, where he spent six years as a maintenance mechanic.

In 2000, at age 35, he enrolled full-time at West Virginia University and earned a board of regents degree. "I took most of the class time with an emphasis on political science, philosophy and English, a track to go to law school. I still think about it sometimes."

As a teenager, he started playing the guitar and pennywhistle, folk music. Then he took up rock and roll. Then he played with a country band.

Carving totem poles mesmerizes him like music used to, he said. "I lose all concept of space and time. I got a similar feeling when I played music. People talk about jelling or getting in the groove. I get caught in the art."

He can't whistle while he works. He's too busy laughing. "I find a lot of humor in playing with totem poles," he said.

To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, visit the [Charleston Gazette] or call 348-5173.