Afreekan Southwell has been captured by woodworking since he was in elementary school. The Antigua native and master woodworker displayed his art at the 10th annual Virgin Islands Woodworkers Expo at Yacht Haven Grande.
His works include everything from a pizza rolling pin to a massive lion head sculpture.
Southwell pursued his passion for years from Antigua to St. Croix, a brief stay in New York – "I didn’t like it” – then back to St Thomas, where he has remained, teaching.
His love for the craft is obvious. As he chatted, he continued working on a good-sized wooden turtle, sculpting the shell. Then he introduced his lion, which he made this year.
Southwell said he makes about seven major pieces a year. The ferocious looking animal, in howl mode, has prominent teeth on display. His mane is mahogany, while the face is copperpot, another local wood.
"I made each of his teeth individually,” he said.
No small feat. Southwell said he hasn’t named the lion yet, but his affection for his creation was obvious.
Across from Southwell, was another of the territory’s major artists, Avelino Samuel. The St. John woodturner is known on island and off.
Samuel came home from college to teach industrial arts at his alma mater, Julius E. Sprauve School.
"I always enjoyed making things,” Samuel said.
Self-taught, Samuel said that when David Knight, who then had a wood store on St. John, loaned him a video on woodturning, his skill level improved profoundly.
His skills improved even more when he started going to the American Association of Woodturners annual symposiums in 2004. Since that time he has become one of the main presenters at the local organization’s annual shows.
Samuel, too, said his interest first budded as a young man. That interest has earned him a reputation unparalleled in woodturning. His pieces range from the modest mortar and pestles and paper towel holders to masterfully sculpted mahogany vessels and spirals.
On Friday, Samuel demonstrated his lathe work in front of the exhibit, creating a simple wooden top from an oblong of wood about six inches long, talking all the while as the block began to take shape as an object.
Samuel’s affection for his art was implicit in his handling of the wood.
One can learn a lot about Virgin Island woods by talking with the artists, who are generous with their knowledge. Mahogany, native to the Virgin Islands, is by far the preferred wood.
The Expo offers everything from salt and pepper grinders to carved mahogany chairs valued at thousands of dollars, with lots in between.
William Johnson said his salt and pepper mills are likely his best sellers. However, he has an original mahogany nut cracker. It’s shaped like a bowl fitted with a brass arrangement looking for all the world like it would be at home in a ship captain’s cabin. Turn the wheel, insert a nut, squeeze and you’re in business.
The exhibit offers a wide variety of craftsmanship and an opportunity to pick up a locally made Christmas gift.
The Expo is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and runs through Sunday. It is sponsored by UVI-CES in partnership with the St. Thomas-St. John Woodworkers’ Society, the V.I. Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the V.I. Department of Agriculture, the V. I. Department of Tourism, the V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Company Ltd.