Meet a trio of north Mississippi craftsmen who each discovered their artistic gifts by chance.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Three northeast Mississippi craftsmen, whose work is vastly different, each found his way to his artistry almost by accident. For one, it remains a hobby; but for the other two, what began as a hobby has become a full-time job.
Whether full-time vocation or an after-work pastime, all three men speak of their creative processes with a joy that’s nearly palpable. Each artist takes pride in the process, as well as his finished product. And clearly, their creations are labors of love.
Making things with metal is nothing new for J.W. Burcham, 62, of the Eggville community near Saltillo. It’s what tool and die makers do. But turning scrap bits of metal into whimsical art pieces is new to him. His hobby began as an ongoing thought process two years ago, but for a year now, Burcham has added action to his ideas. And now it’s difficult to build up his inventory — when folks see his artistry, they want to take it home, and usually do.
Along with dreaming up ideas for his metal creations for a year, he collected all manner of metal pieces and parts he’d eventually use to make them. He keeps in his pocket a magnet. It’s at the end of an extendable wand, so when he’s at work — or wherever metal scraps might lurk — he doesn’t even have to bend over to retrieve them.
Open your mind and picture these: A fish fashioned from a set of small Craftsman wrenches; a woodpecker made from a ball peen hammer head; a sailboat using a pick axe; a vintage fire truck complete with running boards, ladders, water tank and hose; a motorcycle made from a hammer head, armature from an electric motor and a broken wrench for the seat; a turtle made from nuts found on the floor at work; a Nativity made solely from railroad spikes; and a guitar that’s a compilation of an automotive timing chain, a bicycle chain, a few old spark plugs and an auto transmission pump for the sculpture’s base. And that’s just to name a few.
“I am constantly looking for things I can use,” Burcham said. “And when I see a piece of metal, my mind is constantly wondering what I can use it for. When I go to garage sales with my wife, Tracy, I always ask the same question, ‘You got any broken stuff?’”
Burcham loved to draw as a kid and he’s always enjoyed art, but he had no idea his affection for welding together metal bits would be such fun. He set up a booth last year at the Link Centre’s Holiday Market and had no idea what to expect. He sold almost every piece he’d made.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I thought it would be cool, but the more I get into it and come up with ideas, the more fun it becomes.”
When Burcham photographs his work, he uses a soft drink can to show perspective and scale. Most of his pieces are small, but in 2008, he built large drum smokers.
“I built one for myself,” he said. “Then a cousin wanted one, then another cousin, and then someone requested their team’s logo be added. By the time I stopped making them, I’d made 30.”
One of his most recent creations is not as big as a drum smoker, but certainly not as small as his other pieces. It’s a tractor made from an 1890 Singer sewing machine and sprockets from a John Deere implement.
As word spreads of Burcham’s hobby, which he calls Metal Mania, people often call and ask if he can use this or that. He rarely says no.
“One man asked if I could use an old bicycle or two,” Burcham said. “When he brought them, he left 10. Another guy asked if I could use some empty oxygen cannisters. I told him I’d find something I can do with them.”
He doesn’t keep track of time when he’s having fun with his creations, but he figures he could spend three to four hours on some of them.
“But I may have spent weeks looking for everything I’m going to use to make it,” he said. “And that’s all part of the fun.”
See Burcham’s metal sculpture work on Facebook by searching “Metal Mania Art by JW Burcham.”
A few years ago, Clay Beckwith was working in the City Grocery kitchen when his unexpected journey with knife-making began.
Not completely content with the cutlery in the restaurant’s kitchen, Beckwith ordered a pair of his own high-carbon steel knives from Dreck Metal, at that time in Arkansas, now in Kentucky.
“They were amazing knives,” Beckwith said. “I fell in love with them.”
He was so enamored, he wondered if he might try his hand at making one or two. That Beckwith, 31, was connecting with his creative nature should have surprised no one who knows his lineage. Beckwith’s father, Bill Beckwith, is a well-known Mississippi sculptor. The Greenville-born artist has done countless sculptures of famous folks, including the beloved bronze piece of the knees-crossed William Faulkner, seated on a bench just outside Oxford’s city hall.
“Because of my dad, I’d had all this equipment and all these tools around me all my life,” Clay Beckwith said. “When I asked him if I could use some of them, Dad let me run wild. I’d work all night in his shop in Taylor and then go back to City Grocery for my job.”
Six months later, he sold his first knife, and mostly by word of mouth, people became aware of his work, which was high quality, well made and beautiful. Orders started rolling in. He’s now sold knives locally, out of state, and even internationally.
“Matter of fact, I’ve sent 23 knives to a guy in Germany,” said Beckwith, who lives in Sherman with girlfriend, Megan Mooneyhan. “I never clock in for anyone anymore. Doing what I do now is the most gratifying, satisfying feeling. It never feels like work.”
The handles affixed to the high-carbon steel knife blades are all made by hand. Beckwith even harvests his own burls, often used in the handles, from the woods that are part of the family’s 40 acres. Most of his knives are made for chefs, but he has done custom orders for hunters, too. He has also made cutting and charcuterie boards, bottle openers and wooden spoons out of reclaimed barn wood.
He enjoys being his own boss and the head of SLAG Studios in Taylor, his one-man artistic knife-making endeavor. After much thought, Beckwith decided on SLAG, one-word for his business that he said is a nod to his dad, who, for a decade in the ’70s and ’80s, owned and operated Vulcan Studios & Foundry, Mississippi’s first commercial, fine arts bronze foundry. For the non-metallurgists, slag is the leftovers from forging steel and is often looked upon as undesirable scrap. Beckwith, however, has learned byproducts like slag can be recycled — new use, new opportunities.
He has been making knives since 2019, mostly learning his craft through reading and research, some trial and error, and a whole lot of practice. And he remains smitten with the making of knives.
“I don’t think people find happiness until they make a living contributing to something they have a hand in or something that’s actually a part of them,” he said. “Life is good.”
Check out Beckwith’s work on Instagram @slag_studios or at facebook.com/slagstudios.
In 2013, after the death of his great uncle, William Brooks Hooper, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Thad Hooper inherited his choice of tools associated with his relative’s hobbies. He knew little about his great uncle’s affinity for multiple hobbies until his death.
“He was a perpetual hobbyist,” Hooper said. “He made candles, worked with wood, leather, was a locksmith by trade. You name it, he was doing it.”
After briefly trying woodworking, Hooper chose the tools of a leathersmith and started his inherited hobby, even participating in the Double Decker Arts Festival in 2016. By 2020, the hobby became a full-time venture. He is self-taught, having read old books on the craft of leatherworking he found with his great uncle’s tools. There was lots of trial and error, and perhaps a bit of leathersmith DNA.
“If I see it, I can do it,” Hooper said of leather crafts.
The Meridian-born Hooper and his wife, Annie, were living in Huntsville, Alabama, and in 2020, went to Colorado to visit Annie Hooper’s parents, who’d bought a house there. While they were visiting, a storefront in Minturn became available.
“I went back to Huntsville, sold our house in 24 hours and headed back to Colorado,” Annie Hooper said. “We rented from my parents and opened the shop where we sold 80 percent leather and the rest was pottery and other things made by local artists.”
Minturn Mercantile opened in June 2020 and closed in Dec. 2022 when the couple, both Ole Miss graduates who met after college, returned to Oxford just before last Christmas.
For now, they are staying at The Z Bed & Breakfast, owned by Annie ’s family. A round table in an alcove off the kitchen is Hooper’s temporary workshop. Large sheets of leather stand rolled up in one corner while leatherworking tools — large spools of thread, a rawhide mallet, a rotary razor blade, a small square of marble and a few rubber mats — are scattered around the leathersmith’s feet. And, of course, there’s the unmistakable rustic scent of leather.
“We’re around it so much, we often don’t notice it,” Annie said.
Hooper is a patient man, his wife said. And patience is a good trait to possess as a leathersmith, especially when stitching by hand with two needles and heavy-duty thread.
His arsenal of inventory includes wallets, bottle openers, valet trays, totes, Yeti sleeves, flasks, aprons, journals, knife sheaths, guitar straps, Christmas stockings and more.
“I have always enjoyed working with my hands and being creative,” Hooper said. “Leatherwork accomplishes both, and it never feels like work.”
See Hooper’s work on Instagram @hooperleathercompany and at minturnmercantile.com or visit his booth at Double Decker.