Ernest Webb Jr. learned whittling and painting from his mother
BY ED CULLEN
Advocate staff writer
August 23, 2012
From a comfortable couch, Ernest Webb Jr., who turns 81 next month, tells stories of long-gone general stores and explains why he can’t tell you how to play the harmonica, how his mother influenced him and why he prefers wood carving to portrait painting.
“With portraits,” he said, “they want momma to look like a movie star, but momma don’t look like a movie star.”
Born in Hammond, Webb moved to Franklinton, in Washington Parish, when he was 10. His parents, Ernest Webb Sr. and Ethel Webb, moved to Franklinton for Webb’s father to open a general store.
At 14, Webb was living on the family’s dairy farm in Mount Hermon but still working in the general store in Franklinton which led to his achieving two superlatives.
“When I was about 16, I sold the last middle buster plow and the last 200-pound barrels of Lovely Lady Flour in Franklinton,” Webb said.
“That would have been about 1947,” he said. “I sold that flour to Avery Holden and his son. They bought groceries about every six months.”
The stories trickle from Webb like spring water at a seep. Though a sales manager for Community Coffee in five states and a man familiar with trade shows and other forms of commerce, the retired coffee salesman seems to be trying to connect now with then.
Do his carvings help him regain touch with childhood?
“No,” Webb said. “I just like to carve.”
Webb’s mother was a woodcarver and an artist who, Webb said, had two paintings in The Cabildo in New Orleans. She played the harmonica, too.
Webb’s 10th year on Earth is when life started getting interesting for him. His mother got a new harmonica and gave him her old one. Webb started carving and painting.
“We called carving whittling,” he said. “We used a pocket knife, a hammer and a chisel. We used whatever wood there was around and a lot of it was hard to carve.”
Webb whittled pine and white pine. He chiseled Indian heads out of pine knots.
“I was in my 50s before I started using good wood,” he said.
“My wife bought me a lot of basswood in Branson, Mo.,” he said. “And I got some basswood out of Gatlinburg, Tenn. It grows up there, you know.”
Carvers like basswood because it’s relatively soft but holds detail well.
“I cut some tupelo gum,” Webb said, “but you have to use the wood in the bell of the tree near the water. You have to let it season or dry a couple of years.”
When Webb was at Community Coffee, part of his job was going to trade shows. Most of his carvings he gave away to customers and friends. They wanted wild turkeys, bird dogs pointing, ducks, quail, blue jays, cardinals.
“I did a snow goose for someone in Bogalusa and a wren for my wife,” he said.
“Isn’t it cute?” Winona Webb said.
“This living room wouldn’t hold all my carvings,” Webb said.
He sold some of his paintings. He collected color photographs of subjects he met on his coffee travels and made the paintings when he got home to Baton Rouge.
When customers wanted to make momma a movie star, Webb would explain that he could “smooth out wrinkles, but you have to paint what the person looks like.”
“You’ve got to get the eyes, nose and mouth in the right places on the face,” he said. “Ears are no problem. They just fit on the side of the head.”
Webb may not carve to connect with his past, but he stays in touch.
In one of his paintings, a boy has put down his fishing pole to put an arm around a girl. A dog sitting on the pier wears a quizzical look.
“He wonders why the boy quit fishing,” Webb said.
One of Webb’s best carvings is a “plantation doctor,” an elderly slave dosing a little girl patient who’s sitting on his lap.
Webb carves on a covered patio to make it easy to sweep up. Across the yard, some bodacious muscadine grape vines grown on an arbor.
“The roots are cuttings from a vine that grew on a place in Mount Hermon before the Civil War,” Webb said.
The hot weather has slowed Webb’s carving, but inspiration and energy are expected to return in the fall.