Local artist Jeremy Smith never went to art school. He never took an art appreciation class. He did take half of a semester of art in the eighth grade, but that was it.
However, one day the Silver Creek resident picked up a chainsaw for the first time in his life and tried his hand at carving.
And Smith discovered he was good at it – like, really good at it.
Smith has demonstrated his carving chops on the Food Network’s “Halloween Wars,” Good Morning Atlanta on Fox 5 and Atlanta & Company on 11Alive.
“I am completely underqualified,” he said about his training level versus his carving capabilities. No one would believe it by looking at his work on his website, otherlevelsculptures.com.
Smith’s business card lists his skills as chainsaw sculpting, expert pumpkin carver, fruit carver and last – but not least – “really cool guy.”
But wait … there’s more. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t achieved what many people find impossible – defeating the demon of addiction.
Smith pulled what he calls his “lucky poker chip” from his wallet and rubbed his thumb over the surface. The chip, which he got from a casino in Las Vegas, is a reminder of his life before and his life now.
Smith studied each side of it and began to tell a story that he had never shared publicly.
Rewind to 2012.
Smith was experiencing a personal free-fall. He was in the midst of an addiction to painkillers that came about after doctors prescribed opioids to ease Smith’s chronic migraines. He was depressed and despondent to the point he was researching insurance policies to purchase so his wife and young son would have some provision after he was gone.
“I was basically planning my own death,” he said.
Smith said about halfway through the year he experienced a “miracle perfect storm” in his life and started to work to pull himself out of the tailspin.
That October, his wife asked him to carve a pumpkin for the pre-kindergarten class she taught. Smith picked up a set of $12 clay sculpting ribbon tools for the first time and tried his hand at carving.
“It was a face. It was enough,” he said. “I thought maybe I could do something with this.”
He started watching videos of three-dimensional pumpkin carving and it looked so interesting.
“I carved about three pumpkins that year,” Smith said. “They weren’t super awesome compared to what I can do these days, but the carving bug had bit.”
But the problem with pumpkins is, or any food as an art medium, that no matter how wonderfully they are carved, they always rot. Smith needed a different vehicle for carving, and he turned to wood.
In the spring of 2013, Smith bought a Dremel for $60.
“I would sit and carve and think about the future and where I wanted to take this thing,” he said. “There was a show called ‘Saw Dogs’ on TV that opened my eyes to the world of chainsaw carving. Like, I didn’t even know that was a thing until I saw that show. I was sitting there piddling with a Dremel and thinking that the most badass form of carving had to be chainsaw carving, and another dream – another goal – was born.”
Smith had a piece of firewood and used his Dremel to carve a “Green Man”, which is the image of a man’s face whose features and hair are made from carved leaves. That first piece garnered a check for $1,000.
“I remember getting it and staring at it,” he said. “I’d never gotten a thousand dollar check before. … And it really made me want to get another one.”
Smith used that money to purchase a chainsaw, a carving bar and safety equipment.
He kept track of his first 50 carvings. He has since lost track of how many he has made.
Smith has carved sculptures for charity. He has made pieces people commissioned him to create. He has displayed his crafts at the Coosa Valley Fair and Chiaha and shows off his skills during various events around northwest Georgia.
He even made it to the Food Network and competed on “Halloween Wars”.
Smith creates all kinds of designs and objects from all sizes and shapes of wood. He also has started carving fruit in the style seen in the Oriental artform.
Carving has been his panacea. It’s been his therapy.
Today his self-assuredness and contentedness are noticeable from the get-go. And each year he gets a new poker chip to mark another year of being clean and having the chance to take a different direction with life.
Smith pointed to a piece he was close to finishing, a Native American woman called a fancy shawl dancer. With her arms spread wide and her shawl flying in the air around her back, all she lacked was Smith applying different colors of stain to her features.
“That was sitting under a mountain of pills,” Smith said, looking at the shawl dancer. “I find it insane.”
At one time, Smith was sitting under that same mountain. Grateful to be free himself, he carries the sadness of having lost people he loved to addiction, including his brother who died last year after battling alcoholism.
“This is one of my greatest regrets,” Smith said. “I’d had years of experience beating … my demons, and I could’ve helped him with his, I think. But pride, foolish pride, kept us from having that discussion. I never even knew he had a problem until the first time he went to rehab and by then I think it was already too late. I feel like if I had talked to him about my poker chip it might have helped.”
Smith just hopes his reluctant openness about his past can help someone else with their own struggles.
“Nobody likes to admit weakness, and I sure as hell don’t, Smith said. “I don’t like talking about this stuff. I’d just as soon put all this addiction stuff in a box and throw it in a basement and never open it again. But if I had been more open about it then I might still have my brother. If [my story] sparks the conversations that can help, that can change lives, then I’d be happy to pull that box out of the basement and open it up.”