I’M NOT SURE WHERE TO START, so I’ll start with an old book. I bought it because I liked the weathered red leather cover and the author’s anonymity, known only by his initials. I presumed R.D.E. wanted the reader to focus on the content and not on himself. I liked that. And that afternoon I removed every claim-to-fame from my office wall. Until branding Stephen Kelley demanded the name, I thought to use S.A.K., taking no credit. That credit goes to my dad, my uncle, my grandfather, his farmhand Dave, an old cowboy I’ll call Old – and God.
Some say I’m a self-taught folk artist, but since I still don’t know what I’m doing, I’m actually a “No se” artist. When Dad asked me what I was doing, I’d reply with “I don’t have a clue” in Spanish, and that fits me perfectly. I call myself a StoryCarver©, a carver of stories; thus the name StoryCarving©. I don’t start with a sketch or a clay mock-up. I just hold a block of wood and a knife and wait for God to lead the way – and that’s truly the whittle sense of it. From carving an Ivory soap boat that floats when I was eight years old, to operating a Chevrolet dealership by the seat of my pants for 25 years, to being a State of Florida certified civil mediator, to an historical art publisher, to a product designer under license to Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, to making “something from nothing that might be worth something to someone some day,” I’ve learned to rely on Someone other than me. But I’m a slow learner, having just recalled the moment my thumb said hello to a table saw while my mind wandered. So “Please Lord, let my mind wander from You no more.”
I majored in business and minored in art at Mercer University. I now major in artistic endeavors and minor in business. On the Lord’s leading, I treasure hunted for and ultimately found the hiding place of 2,700 handwritten, signed and un-published hymns by America’s Queen of Gospel Music, Fanny Jane Crosby, after whom Chevin (the bride of my life) and I named our three dogs – but don’t tell Fanny. In 2019, I founded Forever Relevant, a non-profit digital archive and ministry based on Fannys’s hymns and over 200 long lost and newly discovered first edition daily devotionals, hymnals and volumes of poetry dating to 1780 that are being transcribed into contemporary English, foreign languages for missionary use, and braille for individual subscriber access. Forever Relevant is a world’s first initiative and you can learn more, subscribe to, or be a Corporate Sponsor, which the Stephen Kelley brand is the first of.
I was married for 38 joyful years to Janda Sims Kelley, now alive and well in the Lord’s presence, and now to Chevin Woodruff Kelley, my second-grade sweetheart. I am the proud dad of Stephen Jr and Chad and the grandfather of Addison, Jake, Vivian, Campbell (with Janda) and Holden and Asa (with Chevin), each calling me Pop – and you can, too. We live in the Northeast Georgia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and if you wish to visit Pop’s shop, feel free to contact me.
More of Our Story …
ALWAYS ON THE FARM
I was born but not raised in Kansas City, Missouri on my grandparent’s farm where cattle, pigs, ponies and an old yellow Jeep were my second best friends. Grandpa (Pa to me) was The Best, which made my summer vacations The Best vacations ever, especially when we ate greasy cheeseburgers with grilled onions and crispy fries with an orange Nehi at the Roosterville diner. Years later and longing for a similar place, Janda and I bought a farm in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains where I could duplicate those farm and family days. Selecting the property was made easy by its listing caption, “Farm, Family & Fellowship.” Since sunflowers were Janda’s favorite and with my Buck nickname, we named it SunniBuck Farm.
I was raised but not born in South Florida. Grandpa sold Victrolas after World War I and bested the competition by offering home delivery. When he realized that selling delivery trucks was more lucrative he opened Allen Chevrolet in Kansas City’s North Town, not far from a Purina dog chow plant and a Holsum bakery, two aromas that should never be mixed together. Also nearby was (and is) the headquarters of Hallmark. When Pa bought a South Florida Chevrolet dealership in 1955, Mom and Dad packed up little Stevie and Billy and moved from the farm to the beach.
Nevertheless, I remained far more a farm hand than a beachcomber, loving barns far more than boats – and the smell of new-mown hay more than salt in the air. While days were filled with sandlot baseball games, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and building plastic models, the greatest days remained the family’s pre-interstate drives to Missouri, where Pa’s farmhand Dave taught me how to whittle a stick down to nothing.
A SERIES OF SOAPY EVENTS
On most fall days and Christmas too, my most unwelcome South Florida friend was asthma. If I wasn’t under an oxygen tent, I was homebound to a humidifier loaded with Vicks VapoRub in Mom and Dad’s French Provincial bed watching the Mouseketeers, The Adventures of Superman and American Bandstand on a black and white Philco.
On the best of days, Dad would leave me with bars of Ivory soap and Mom’s paring knife with instructions to carve an Ivory soap boat that would float. While Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon sang 1962’s “Palisades Park”, I held that little whittle knife until I traded it for a Slinky. Slinky was invented by Richard James who became a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators – and I thought you’d like to know that. Ivory soap’s long-standing “99% pure” moniker was “keep it pure, clean and simple – and I thought you’d like to know that, too. It reminds me of Philippians 4:8, “… whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are PURE, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” And that’s how I taught myself how to carve while letting the Lord lead my hands.
NO BETTER HANDS
Dad and Gramps were my most significant influencers. Dave Wagner was the third. Dad tried his hand at photography and was rarely without his Hassleblad. He was also quick to buy a Minox A/IIIs spy camera after he saw James Bond use one in 1969’s “His Majesty’s Secret Service.” Gramps was a workshop kind of guy and could nearly build anything – and what he couldn’t, Dave could. When Gramps was busy, I tagged alongside Dave while waiting for his next pocketknife lesson. “Little britches”, he’d say, “a man should never be without a pocketknife, he just never knows when he’ll need to whittle nothing much.”
The use of good and useful tools were the first good and useful lesson Pa taught me. Most summers ended with a trip to the hardware store to replace the screwdrivers that I made useless by reducing them to a nub on his Craftsman grinder, just to watch the sparks fly.
While rough-housing in Gramps’ foyer, I broke a window. He came running, saw the broken glass, left the room without an angry word and soon returned with Scotch tape and Elmer’s glue. Years later I asked him why he never replaced the glass. He said, “Seeing that busted window every day reminded me of the fun you were having. That was worth far more than a piece of glass.” The family gathered after he died in a farmhouse fire many years later. That patched window was still there, as was that old Maxwell House can full of useless drivers. A long time later, my nephew threw a dart, missed the board, hit my newly-papered wall and dimpled the underlying plaster. While his parents offered a profound “O no!”, I circled the damage with a ballpoint pen and wrote the date and Little Bill’s initials. Some time later, a second he hammered a nail into their own newly-painted living room wall, which his mom and I circled, initialed and dated. No damage done and all worth the memory.
If you were to visit my workshop (and I hope you do), you’ll find an old Maxwell House coffee can full of used screw drivers that my sons, grandsons and granddaughters have grinding rights to – good to the last nub and “Thank you, Pa” for a good and useful lesson.
Hang on tight. Dave taught me how not to fall out of that doorless yellow Jeep. “Just hang on tight to what’s worth hanging on to. I’m certain you’ll need them one day.” Those wisdom words are worth teaching and preaching once you strip the farmhand humor out of them, since so often we hang onto the wrong things in life, and this, too: There came a day when I couldn’t find Dave after my favorite fudgesicle lunch. I walked to a tiny, two room cottage he shared with his arthritic wife Francis, Aunt Francis to me. Through its pictured window I watched him spoon-feed tomato soup for her, while leaving me with lesson I would recall many years later – and suddenly this thought comes to mind …
“There are no better hands to do something with than the hands God gives you to do something with.”
LIFE FLIES BY FASTER THAN FLEETING
I married Janda Karen Sims prior to my graduation from Mercer University in 1973. We were together for 38 years and joyfully raised two sons while building as many SunniBuck memories as possible. Janda published “Forget-me-not”, a delightful and faithful gift book that will soon be reissued with an epilogue of her purpose-full life. Two years after we moved from South Florida to Nashville and on Thanksgiving 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following her diagnosis, we began first-ever morning devotions, growing closer than ever before while the clock ticked towards her going home day, two years later.
Time flies by faster than fleeting. At 56 and one month before our 38th anniversary she passed at the same age and disease that lost my mom. On July 22, 2007 at 10:00am, I prayed Janda into heaven. Through my grief, I hid in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 days, bought a Harley-Davidson I named Rosie and started carving something out of nothing, “Stick Figures” I called them, with a new set of carving knives. Two years later, I prayed Dad into heaven and kept on carving. Three years later I started thinking of Chevin Woodruff, my second- grade sweetheart who I first kissed on the wrist on our elementary school jungle gym. From second grade and halfway through sixth, Chevin and I were best buddies and sat next to each other in every class. After I Facebook asked her if she went to such and such school in 1958, she responded with, “Yes Stephen Kelley. Furthermore, you kissed me in the second grade.” After three months of many-a-day phone conversations and fifty-four years after that innocent kiss, I rode Rosie to Chevin’s home in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with two things to say. “You sure are cute!” and “You know that first kiss doesn’t have to be our last.” Three years later, I asked a bended-knee question and presented a hand-carved engagement ring topped with a chip of quartz. Following her “Yes!” I whittled our wedding bands and a cake topper we named “Rejoice” for two good and deserving reasons. It was Janda’s last whispered encouragement to me and it best described our good and renewed love story.
IN THE ATTIC WITH GOD
My first bible was the “Child’s Bible – the Life of Jesus” – and I still have it. Mom gave it to me on the day I was born, February 23, 1951. On February 4, 1962, she gave me “In God’s Presence” – and I still have it, too. 57 years later I opened it for the first in a long time and read words that had been penned for me …
“And whatsoever ye do in word and deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.” Colossians 3:17
This is the same verse I had already assigned to every day’s carving time. When I decided to relocate from Nashville to Chevin’s locale and during a pack-the-attic afternoon, I opened Mom’s keepsake trunk for the first time since her 1984 passing. Aside from baby teeth and report cards, I found a folder of 1958 to 1961 class composite pictures from 2nd to 5th grade. On the reverse side, Mom had written Chevin’s name on a line that corresponded to her seat, year-by-year next to mine. It was the first time I had seen our names together in Mom’s handwriting. Another second folder contained a newspaper article about classroom chicken hatching. For 23 years, a picture from the article of me holding an egg hung in our living room. I had never seen the article. But the full article also had a picture of Chevin, saved by Mom, our pictures together. The third folder contained a 1959, asthma-time get-well letter signed, “Love, Chevin.” My first love letter, saved by Mom from a little girl she never met. In that bittersweet moment, I heard in my heart a still whisper, “I knew you would suffer, but My plan is perfect.” And then I recalled Janda’s own whisper. “Rejoice.”
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Rejoice was my first real whittle, followed by Release, inspired by my first slide ride with Dad by my side, mimicking a photograph that Mom took in 1952. Balance was third in line, all three the first Good Woodleys©, “A Little Line of Good Standing People©” And because they are very story-telling, I call them StoryCarvings©, a departure from the usual “figurine” category. To learn more about StoryCarvings, click here.
After this carving start, I whittled the first Christmas Scenes© piece, a collection of verse scenes that accurately tell the story of Christ’s birth. I’ve been told it’s a first-in-the-world, complete telling of the story, rather than the traditional and inaccurate version compressed into a single box.
The Stephen Kelley™ Collection of wholesome, homespun and faithful products doesn’t stop there. In the future, look for Stilt Figures©, Good Hearts©, and purpose-driven Good & Caring© designs that support non-profit organizations serving Rescue Missions, Childhood Health and Hunger, Domestic Abuse and First Responders.
A JEEP FULL OF COLOR
Dave Wagner was Grandpa’s Kansas City farmhand. You can meet him in the foregoing No Better Hands section. If he and I weren’t patrolling the fence line or unloading manure from an old wooden wagon, we were tooling around in old and yellowed Jeep that was more rust red, or was it a Willys and without any doors or seatbelts. I kid you not, he once said to “hang on tight to whatever I value, especially to whatever I might value more much later,” and so I did.
Michael is my brother but he’s always been West to me and Jeep every now and then, which explains A Jeep Full of Color. Orange is one of my favorite colors, second only to purple and for reasons I cannot explain, which explains why orange is the color of the Stephen Kelley logo and appears throughout the website. But not until I saw it on a Jeep did settle on the right shade. They call it Punk’n Orange, I call it Jeep Orange but since I care not to abuse their Intellectual Property, my Jeep is an homage to Michael, I mean West, I mean Jeep and if you ever are pleased to meet him, tell him I said hello.