Artist’s sculptures are ‘an expression of my faith’

Self-taught sculptor and woodcarver Derrell Southern takes a chisel and hammer to a large piece of wood. Southern is a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven

BONNER SPRINGS — The next time you visit Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, take a look at the wooden sculptures in the sanctuary.

They were all carved by one man: Derrell Southern, who lives in Bonner Springs.

There is the crucifix, of course, and also four angels — a flutist, a violinist, a heralding trumpeter and a lyricist with a harp.

Southern, now 87, and a member of Good Shepherd, has been sculpting wood figures for as long as he can remember. Although he has had no formal training in art, he said he came from a “wood family.” Since his dad was a cabinetmaker, he was always around wood.

Although he dabbled in other art media, such as acrylic in his early years, he always came back to wood. Now sculpting full time since his retirement from TWA, where he was first a mechanic and later an engineer, his works can be found in a variety of churches and other venues across the country.

“In 1970, TWA commissioned me to do a piece for Neil Armstrong,” Southern said.

Using a large walnut log he found at the Lake of the Ozarks, Southern created an impressionistic piece honoring Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

“It was quite an honor to do a piece for him,” said Southern. “It was a simulation of his trip to the moon and showed him taking off for the moon. It’s about four feet tall. He took it to his office in Washington, D.C.”

But Southern, who said he has always been deeply rooted in the Catholic Church, wanted to find a way to use his art as an expression of his Catholic faith.

He contacted churches in various dioceses about his art. After putting an advertisement with pictures of his work in a California magazine, he was contacted by St. Pius X Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was soon commissioned to create a crucifix for its sanctuary.

The carving was a great success.

“The crucifix has greatly increased the spiritual life of our parish,” said Kathy Anson, office manager of St. Pius X. “It’s an overpowering symbol of our faith.”

From that first crucifix, word of Southern’s art spread, and other commissions followed. Life-sized crucifixes and other religious art can now be found in several venues in the Kansas City area, including St. Catherine Church in Grandview, Missouri; Good Shepherd Church in Smithville, Missouri; the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway; St. Peter Church in Kansas City, Missouri; Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri; and at churches in Meriden and St. Louis. His work can also be found in Bishop Miege, Roeland Park, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Overland Park, high schools.

In addition to large figures, Southern has also fashioned chalices, processional crosses, candle holders, plates and bowls.

While he used to work with a variety of woods ranging from Osage orange and mahogany to cherry and teak, he now works almost entirely in walnut and white oak. His crucifixes — most of them life-sized — are all commissioned works. Those crucifixes may take the better part of a year to complete.

“To create a crucifix, I’ll meet with the members of the congregation, the priests and staff, to know exactly what they are looking for,” Southern said. “I’ll find out the type of expression they want on Christ and whether he is to be portrayed as alive or dead.”

After at least three meetings, Southern will create a clay model of the proposed crucifix, then return to the parish. After final approval is given, it will take Southern six months or so to complete the work.

That work begins with a shipment of special-order wood from a local lumberyard. The boards he receives measure 12 feet long, 8 inches wide and 1-5/8 inches thick, and contain no more than nine percent moisture. Once the boards are cut to the necessary length with a circular saw, Southern glues them together to obtain the correct thickness before a rubber mallet and carving tools — gouges and chisels — are used to turn the wood into a work of art. His studio is never quiet while he works — music is always playing.

As a full-time caregiver for his wife Elaine, Southern’s sculpting time is more limited these days.

“I try to work six to eight hours a day,” he said. “It’s not fatiguing. But I work an hour or so, then get away for a fresh mind. I’m lucky my studio is in my home so I can be with [Elaine] and work below.”

Currently, he is working on a life-sized cellist playing his instrument. The cello has only a front and back with the open area in between the two boards full of musical notes. When finished, he is hopeful the piece will be accepted by the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I know I don’t have a lot of time left, but I’m ready,” he said. “I want to continue helping parishes. Working with them is quite rewarding.

“I’m entrenched with everything in the Catholic Church. This is an expression of my faith.”

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