The Business Takes Off
The eldest son of Charles and Edna Baxter, Kevin Baxter 1960, literally grew up from before kindergarten with a pencil or a paintbrush in his hand. His skills were brought to his parent’s attention in grade school. He started what became a 10-year apprenticeship in woodcarving under his father at age nine. His grandmother, Ruth Gordon, began him in oil painting at age 13. By sixteen, his work was selling. In high school, he won a city-wide competition as the top high school artist in Tacoma, Washington. He began teaching drawing, painting, and woodcarving that following year, and he was in his first gallery at age 22.
Kevin recalled-I had grown up most of my life around carvers and artists. I took every art course in school I could. I devoured art books. Artists came to our home. We visited their homes. We belonged to the group Northwest Woodcarvers from the time I was a young teen. We co-founded a new carving group, the Evergreen Wood Carvers Association, in Puyallup, Washington. We attended and demonstrated at many regional art shows and carving shows. I was exhibiting my work and demonstrating from junior high and onwards. I was continuously mentored by artists, so art just became a way of life.
Kevin moved to Kearney, Nebraska in 1985. He attended Kearney State College sporadically working toward a teaching degree in art. He learned bronze sculpting under Ray Schultz and two of Kevin’s bronze pieces won him a scholarship for Most Promising Student in Bronze. It was then that Kevin was picked as one of five students who studied under John Raimondi in the construction of the Athleta sculpture installed outside of the Health and Sports Center at UNK.
Kevin married Elona Campbell in 1987 and they had two children, Kelsey Baxter-1994-and Kyle Baxter-1997, with Kelsey becoming the next artist in the family line. During this time, Kevin’s father Charles had gotten involved in the local carving club in Kearney and invited Kevin to join. Kevin notes, Eventually, he got me to attend and quickly, because of my experiences, the group voted me into a position of leadership. Woodcarving was not my main interest—painting was. But I had to fill this role and these men wanted guidance. In a few short years, Kevin became vice president and then president of the Central Nebraska Wood Carvers of Kearney.
Like my dad Charles, Kevin noted, I ended up with a disabling spinal injury and surgery. While I was recovering, my mother Edna found a way to prop me up so I could carve. My wife promoted my carvings and soon we started my Kearney business we named Linden Tree Woodcarving after the wood I used for my pieces. I began teaching carving, became the president of the group we now call The Central Nebraska Wood Carvers club, and over the next couple years as I nurtured trust, I was able to encourage a group of primarily retirees into letting me exhibit their work publicly.
In addition, Kevin continued, one of my students, then department chair of Mass Communications, Keith Terry at UNK, wanted to produce a television series and asked me if I would host it. He titled the show Linden Tree Woodcarving after my business, and we were able to produce two full seasons before the University’s budget cuts shut down the production of our show.
Kevin also recalled-My dad, Charles, came to work for me in my shop, along with my best friend and student, Roy Cassell. My mom Edna processed carving patterns and student supplies and we combined my dad’s old business practice and mine as a professional carver to promote the art of woodcarving across the region. At its peak, I was teaching nightly in Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, and Holdrege, hosting television, taking commissions, and trying to get my group into every venue in Kearney I could get them in. They finally got on-board. They asked the important questions. They set up shows and many of my students went on to teach others. The group took on its own momentum. Dad’s health declined. Roy’s health declined. And I was ready to step away, but with their help, that little group grew to where it had to divide and over 50 other carvers spread the art of woodcarving all over the region. It is just a matter of sharing. We did nothing special. We just introduced people to art in a simple way. They tried it for themselves. They got excited and shared it with others.
In 1997, Kevin made one of the significant commissions of his early work carving career for actor/director Peter Fonda, a result of meeting the right person at the right time. He had a booth at the Grand Island Art in the Park selling and demonstrating his work, when a potential customer approached. She fell in love with a carved Christmas ornament he had carved and stated that she wanted to purchase it and give it to Peter and Becky Fonda. Doubtful, Kevin asked how the lady knew the Fondas, and she identified herself as Ruth McCauley, the coordinator of Friends of Henry Fonda, the docent for the Henry Fonda House at the Stuhr Museum, and close friends with the famous Fonda family.
After a long discussion, Kevin suggested that he could make a specialized gift for the celebrity couple. Ruth was excited to collaborate so they met a few times for Kevin to learn what the couple liked and what Ruth had in mind. Since they had a log home in Montana where Ruth had visited and where they collected Native American art, a decision was made to create a primitive weather vane that would reflect the couple’s interests and décor, as well as the American Folk-Art style Kevin was using at the time. The design was reminiscent of early American weather vanes found in various collections and boasted a Native American riding a horse. The horse and rider were carved from pine, as many originals were. Kevin used antique wooden roof shingles which created the blades and tail fin, real horse hair, as well as aged and well-patinaed copper and iron hardware. In the end, the art piece was wind-tested to make sure it would function and respond as a traditional American Folk Art weathervane should. Ruth presented the piece to Peter and Becky at the Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln when Peter was promoting the release of his new film, Ulee’s Gold in 1997. Ruth sent Kevin a picture of her and Peter together [fig 18] and a kind note on the back [fig 19] that the carving was presented to the Fondas.