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Imaginative Les Vanhook shares his art in new book

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"The Life and Art of Les Vanhook: His Fascination With Wood and Watercolor" book cover. Photo submitted
This 2009 photo captured Les Vanhook surrounded in his Old Mill Arts and Crafts shop by a sampling of his handiwork that includes paintings, wood carvings and three-dimensional carving-paintings.
Lebanon artist, sculptor and woodcarver Les Vanhook, left, and his friend David Brooks collaborated to produce "The Life and Art of Les Vanhook: His Fascination With Wood and Watercolor," a book filled with photographs that illustrate Vanhook's prolific career in a variety of mediums. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

A stroke in April 2015 stilled the amazingly gifted hands of local artist-woodcarver Les Vanhook.

But his mind, ah, his ever-churning creative mind remains as sprightly as ever.

Vanhook, who says he is, "91 and going on 100," has released a slim, 90-page book bubbling over with some 200 photographs, many in color, that display a small sampling of 50 years of his paintings, wood carvings and sculptures (and lyrics to three gospel songs he composed).

An artist's work in pictures

"The Life and Art of Les Vanhook: His Fascination With Wood and Watercolor" is available at Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home at 241 W. Main St. in Lebanon. The 90-page book features about 200 photos. Cost is $25.

The Wilson County native co-wrote "The Life and Art of Les Vanhook: His Fascination With Wood and Watercolor" with his good friend, David Brooks, co-owner of Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home.

As for what inspired the artisan to share his archives in a book, he says, "I can't tell you. I don't know. I just decided I ought to have my work where I could keep it. In other words, it's something I can relate to everybody and not just to one or two of my friends. I just decided it ought to be done."

The book cover stars a wood carving of a country doctor driving his horse and buggy. Titled "Old Doc Buggy and Nellie," it was inspired by the Doc Adams character from the classic TV Western series, "Gunsmoke." "It's one of the best things I've ever carved," said Vanhook.

The craftsman made his first hand carving in 1957 when he lit into a piece of wood with his pocketknife and whittled a pair of praying hands. His last carving before his stroke depicts Benjamin Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence.

Vanhook was in his workshop making a wood burning when he had the stroke. In the four months previous, he crafted and painted 45 wood burnings. "I like carving pretty well. I like to see things come out of the wood," he said.

As for how this detour into a publishing project commenced, Brooks said, "One day this summer I was visiting Les at the nursing home, and he said, 'Guess what? We're going to write a book.' And I was his right hand and his legs. He told me to bring him some paper and pencils, and he would write it."

Vanhook, unable to write with his right hand, scribbled out his prose with his left.

While the artist shares a portion of his life in words, he allows his works to speak more eloquently for him. Many of his paintings capture local history such as those of the old Wilson County courthouse, the Buchanan House and the old Leeville schoolhouse where Vanhook began his formal education.

There are also a handsome range of photos of his mule paintings, Cades Cove landscapes and other scenes and a passel of carvings of trains, wagons, buggies, birds, fish and cowboys.

Book partner Brooks said, "We found some how-to-stories that he wrote in the 1980s, like how-to-carve a fish, and we found the illustrations. Also we've got how to cast a cold cast sculpture and how to grind stone ground corn meal with illustrations of his mill and a recipe for corn meal and a picture of his cornmeal sack. That's all in the book."

Brooks became associated with Vanhook in 1993 when Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home began to advertise on the gospel singer-songwriter's radio show, "The Lighthouse," that ran for many years on WCOR. Brooks was already familiar with the painter's wildlife artwork because his parents had Vanhook's paintings of a deer and an owl hanging in their living room.

The son of a carpenter, Vanhook built about 100 houses across Wilson County. From 1963 to 1972, he shared his construction know-how with about 300 students while teaching trades and industry at Lebanon High School. Guided by his steady hand, the boys in those classes built eight houses.

Vanhook was widowed when Mildred, his wife of 68 years, died in December 2013, but he remains in their log cabin home where he is cared for by his son, Rusty, also a professional painter.

"I'm very proud of my Daddy, and he really taught me everything I know. He's the greatest man I know," said the younger Vanhook.

Les has been featured on public television's "Tennessee Crossroads" and has captured 15 to 20 blue ribbons at the Wilson County Fair over the years. A member of the Fiddlers Grove Woodcarvers Hall of Fame, he is also known across the U.S. for his mule paintings.

He estimates that Cracker Barrel Old Country Store gift shops sold 30,000 prints of his mule paintings over the years and notes, "I signed and numbered 'em all."

As for how his book turned out, the congenial country gentleman said, "I thought it was just like it ought to be. I thought they did a good job."

Amy Bass of Creative Graphics in Lebanon designed the book.

More than half of the first printing of 125 books are sold. Priced at $25, it is available at Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home on West Main Street.

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